by Pam England
For centuries Catholic countries have celebrated fathers on St. Joseph’s Day (on March 19): building an altar, wearing red, and preparing special foods. In over a hundred countries, Father’s Day is celebrated(on different days). Although we’ve become accustomed to the commercialization of this holiday, the first day designated to honor fathers (in the. U.S.) in 1908 was a solemn and meaningful occasion.
On December 6, 1907, over 367 men died (ranging in age from 10 to 65 years) in the Monongah coal mines in West Virginia. Explosions were felt ten miles away; there were no survivors; it was the worst mining accident in U.S. history. In mining communities, whole families are miners; in a single mining accident, most or all of the men in a family could be wiped out: fathers and sons, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers. On December 6, a thousand children were suddenly fatherless in Monongah. And this was not the only mining accident that year; in mines nationwide, 3,242 miners died.
I sat long contemplating the depth and impact of this profound collective shock and grief, the burying of shattered dreams and body parts. Then, tonight, my friend Brennan told me that after a deadly mine explosion, the only confirmation of death might be a name engraved on a hard hat, written on coveralls or boots, or finding a name written on paper stuffed into the bottom of their knife sheaths. (The miners’ realistic labeling ritual reminds me of women who, during the 16th to 18th centuries acknowledged the possibility of dying in pregnancy or childbirth; they had a tradition of sewing their burial shroud while making their wedding trousseaux.)
We all grieve a father-figure’s dying at some time, but what was especially moving about the Monongah community was the shared experience of loss on the same day, in the same way. There was no one consoling another who was not also themselves in need of solace.
The economic loss was devastating to widows and children who earned far less than their husbands/fathers made as miners. Yet, perhaps the shared experience of shock and hardship built strengths and strategies for survival in individuals and the community.
It is a common human experience not to appreciate someone until they are gone. Perhaps it is also human nature to venerate the father figure when scores die together in a mine or during a war. The profound personal and shared sorrow moved Grace Golden Clayton to create a unique church service to honor all fathers on July 5, 1908. However, in her day’s absence of social media, Clayton’s vision did not reach people far and wide. In addition, the first fathers’ day service competed with Fourth of July carnivals, parades, revivals, and festivities. In June of 1910, another service honoring fathers in Spokane gained more attention. Father’s Day became an official national holiday in 1972.
If you would like, please share your way of celebrating a father’s first Father’s Day or remembering a father, grandfather, or father figure who passed away this year.
Dave Sutor, (June 16, 2019), West Virginia mine tragedy catalyst for Father’s Day. The Tribune-Democrat
Patricia Lundy. Shrouds or Lingerie? Traditional Female Burial Garments
March 3, 2016. https://patricialundy.com/2016/03/03/shrouds-or-lingerie-traditional-female-burial-garments/