Honoring A British Nurse

“What is an American doing here honoring a British nurse?”

The question took me by surprise. It was 2005. I was standing by the gravesite of Edith Cavell at the 90th memorial service honoring her at the Cathedral in Norwich where she is buried. A small group gathered around her grave as the Vicar gave a short eulogy. I had discovered her story just a few months previously and stumbled onto this ceremony quite by accident. Now I was actually standing at her final resting place when the BBC reporter walked up to me and asked me her question.

As I stood there, I remembered reading how they transported her body from Belgium to Westminster Abby in London and then along the tracks up to Norwich. I saw the pictures of the thousands of people lined along the streets of London as her coffin passed by them. They stood with their hats off, their heads bowed and with tear-streaked faces. They loved what she did for their country and now they were honoring her.

But time had passed. The Brits were subjected to another brutal war. Their businesses, churches, and houses had been bombed. Although a magnificent forty-five foot statue was erected in 1920 to honor her, that memory seemed to fade into the ashes of history over subsequent years.

Before I arrived in Norwich in 2005, I couldn’t find anyone who had heard of her – in either country. I made the pilgrimage to Norwich because it was the last place I could think of where her memory might still exist. I found her buried all alone behind the Norwich Cathedral. It’s a peaceful place, but it felt solitary and lonely to me.

In the ten years since then, I have written a book about her. Two years later, I re-edited it into a British edition per their request. In 2013, the Norwich nurses invited me to join them in the ceremony they held each year on the date of her death. As the first American to have been so invited, I felt humbled to be a part of the ceremony held to honor her. I have been back every year since, but still, when the ceremony was over, her memory seemed to disappear.

But this year was different. Nick Miller, the official historian on Edith, worked all year to make it a centennial year no one would never forget. There were displays, plays, exhibits of her artwork, and special church services. They displayed the boxcar that carried her coffin. One innovative person produced a beer and it named after her. A 5-pound coin was minted in her honor, although it is not easily obtained. Last year, the local newspaper whose office is just ten minutes from the Cathedral, didn’t bother to go down to write anything up about the ceremony. This year they printed a beautiful 12-page special edition. The BBC radio and TV were very involved. They invited me to their studio for a half hour interview. Just before the ceremony in Norwich, I was interviewed again. I was often greeted with “You must be the American I heard about on the BBC.”

I could have never believed that I would be a part of this eventful time to honor my nurse heroine. In Norwich during the ceremony, I placed a poppy wreath on her grave. Poppies are a symbol of WWI. I did the same thing the next day in London at her statue. With bowed head in both places, I prayed to her and in that prayer, I remembered once again the question posed to me by the BBC reporter ten years ago.

“What was an American doing honoring a British nurse?”

I was there to thank her for her sacrifice. I believe she represented nurses in every country. I praised her for showing the world what nursing was all about. I said how much I appreciated her bravery and said that she not only showed us how to live but also how to die. The reporter must have liked my answer because it was posted on the BBC five o’clock news that day.

Ten years later, I was again standing at her graveside. Another BBC reporter asked me what this ceremony meant to me. I said I was there to thank her for her willingness to make a decision that she knew might prove fatal for her, but would give strength to others to follow what is right and what should be done in the face of adversity. “She proved” I said, “that one person can make a tremendous difference.”

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