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India OkulaMike Newall, Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist, movingly chronicles a tragic death, abandonment and faith-filled ending summed up by 94 year old Fr. Steve India.

I wrote about Ethan’s short, sad life last month. About how the sweet, intellectually disabled 10-year-old foster child died in February after he fell ill at school. How he writhed in pain for hours in a wheelchair in a school hallway while a nurse and teachers at Julia De Burgos Elementary failed to dial 911.

How his foster mother refused to pick him up and sent a friend who berated the sick child. How he was dead by the time someone finally called an ambulance.

The story seemed to end July 24 …

Ethan Okula lies in an unmarked grave near the bottom of a shadeless slope in Merion Memorial Park, a modest cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

He was buried by those who failed him. By the city agency charged with his care. When he was buried in February by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, whose custody he was in as a foster child, he was buried like a pauper.

Nothing to mark the life of a 10-year-old with a sweet smile who liked to draw and sing and dance. Nothing to note the life of a child who should not be dead. Just a nearby tree stump and patchy, sun-scorched grass. A final insult.

Fortunately, the story had another chapter with 94 year old Fr. Steve India, playing a major role.

Soon, the Rev. Stephen India, CM, a friend of the cemetery owner, arrived. The mourners swelled around the grave, the new headstone still covered by a white silk cloth.

No one sat in the chairs near the grave, the ones typically reserved for family. They did not feel it was their place.

A hot wind whipped through the tent. A man who releases doves at funerals had volunteered his services. The bird flapped in its flower-covered cage. The priest began.

“Ethan’s life was cut short,” he said. “He is now in heaven with the Lord looking down upon us. It is our concern today that there are other children who are in Ethan’s circumstances, who are abused and not cared for, and that the Lord takes care of them.”

After prayers, the man with the dove cupped the bird in his hand, and some of its feathers fell to the grass around the grave as it flew away.

In time, Father India said, people will forget Ethan, just as in time, we are all forgotten. But now the stone bears his name.

“It is a fitting eternal reward for our innocent child,” he said. The silk cloth was pulled away.

The stone bore the inscription “God’s special child.” And a porcelain photo of Ethan – a man who repairs the cemetery equipment had paid for it, wanting to do what he could.

Another stranger, who had left white roses for Ethan, had asked the cemetery about the tree stump next to the grave. The tree had been struck by lightning in a storm and had to be cut down, the woman was told. She is paying for a new tree, so Ethan’s grave will lie in shade.

As the service neared its end, and the crowd began to walk away, some of Ethan’s relatives arrived. They sat in the chairs nearest the grave. They felt it was their place.

After a while, everyone had gone. And it was quiet again. The vast, peaceful, terrible stillness of a cemetery.

A hot breeze blew, rustling the leaves of the plum tree and the fresh flowers left by the grave of Ethan Okula.

India 2

mnewall@phillynews.com215-854-2759