It all began late in December 2014 with a phone call: “Would I conduct a funeral?” Like most Australians I had been transfixed with the saga of the Lindt Cafe. There, a so called wannabe Islamic terrorist had bailed up a coffee shop in Martin Place, Sydney. During the siege two of his victims, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson died.
Everyone was moved and an endless stream of people pretty soon festooned the whole of Martin Place with a literal ocean of flowers.
My caller asked if I would conduct the funeral for Tori Johnson as his local church wouldn’t because he was gay. Of course I would and I did.
From Sydney to Paris
A few days later I was in Paris and the whole Charlie Hebdo massacre happened right before my eyes. Still raw from my Sydney experience I hurried to the building and joined the endless queue of people once again bringing flowers. There I quietly left my bunch of flowers with all the others.
Later that year, in France, the Bataclan terrorist attack took place. More terror, death and destruction. I was in France shortly afterwards. There were armed military at the train station and all night my hotel room resonated to the sound of police sirens.
A fitting memorial
A few months later I met with an establishing Bataclan Memorials Committee. They had found difficulty moving forward because the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo and French authorities didn’t want to highlight terrorism there. Anyway it turned out that President Mitterand was going to hold a Memorial Ceremony for all victims the Paris attacks in the Place de la République in January 2016. I was determined to go to that.
Meanwhile, in Sydney I had learned that all the flowers for the Lindt cafe siege victims had been collected by the state government and composted. I felt it would be meaningful if I could collect some of the compost from all the flowers in Sydney so it could be used as part of the fertiliser for the memorial tree to be planted in France.
My first move was to go to the then Premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, and see if he would give me the okay to pick up some compost. His answer was a determined “no”because he said he did not want Paris and Sydney to be linked by terrorism.
I found that strange because Australia and France are indelibly linked through war and sacrifice anyway.
Then a box arrived
However, my arguments must have sunk in because on Christmas Eve 2015 a box of composted flowers turned up in my office. I won’t tell you how I did it but I managed to get these composted flowers to France! Now the problem was to get some of this hallowed compost mixed around the roots of the memorial tree.
At the appointed day and time the square filled with mourning people. I found the the ceremony very moving. President Mitterand spoke and the famous French singer Johnny Halliday sang appropriately with great seriousness. The planting ceremony was conducted with typical French sensibilities.
After the memorial – my secret endeavour
When it was all over, I quietly walked to where the tree had been planted and mixed my compost into the freshly dug soil. The roots of the tree, from then to forever, would be nourished by the compost of flowers from Sydney.
I really felt, and still do, that was the appropriate thing to do.
Every year after that, I would go back and check on how the tree was going. Like everything COVID-19 put the kibosh on that and I was unable to go back and check for nearly 3 years.
Finally, this week I was able to.
I must say the memorial garden in which the tree had been planted looked unkempt and overgrown. It reminded me a bit of looking for a grave in 100-year-old cemetery.
“Oh”, someone told me. “That’s because in France everybody goes on holidays in August including all the park gardeners”. It’ll be back looking really neat come September”.
I’m going to come back and check to make sure.