a little east of reality

Monday, January 09, 2006

roadside memorials

Q posted a little essay on roadside memorials several weeks back. It was interesting and gave me some insight into a practice I’ve never really related to. I always meant to make a post about it, so here I am finally doing so.

Driving by these memorials has often irritated me. My first reaction to them was cynical and a little callous. I’ve always thought of genuine mourning as a private affair…weeping and wailing and gnashing your teeth in public always came across to me as grieving to be seen to grieve. Roadside memorials, which are very common down the Southern coast of Adelaide where I grew up, struck me as an over-dramatic way to call attention to mourning: it’s not enough for us to visit this person’s grave, or weep over their death with friends and family – we want people driving by to see the flowers and teddy bears we’ve brought to prove our grief is real.

I once saw one of these homemade memorials attached to a tree down at the local creek from which a friend of ours had hung himself. There was no logic to me in placing a marker there to remember an act that horrified his friends and family and the unfortunate kids who found his body. I want to remember him, but the most important aspects of his personality are not to be found in the fact that he hung himself – that tree is a symbol, not of what he was, but of all the potential in him that was destroyed in that decision. It’s the last place I would want to call attention to – it says so little about who he was and brands him as nothing more than a suicide. That’s not the sum of him. Similarly I don’t understand why people would want to mark the spot where someone crashed their car – is that the lasting memory they want in everyone’s mind as they drive by each day? Here died Joe Bloggs: road statistic.

With that kind of history, you can see why I started reading Q’s post without really expecting to be moved by it. But I was, and here are a few reasons why:

Often there is a message being sent to the community, especially in the case where someone has died young. The stories behind the markers are often known locally and they send a message to those still alive:
“be careful, slow down"
"don’t drink and drive”
“life is too short, don’t throw it away."
"Make the most of the time you have with those you love, because you don’t
know what tomorrow is going to bring."
These markers encourage us to contemplate life and death, and make the most of life.

Like Q, I found this comment particularly poignant: Researchers have noticed the tendency to infantilize victims in their teens and twenties by surrounding their memorials with soft toys and other talismans of childhood.To Mr. Belshaw, this is a reference to the victim's lost potential for redemption.
"When a 19-year-old comes out of a bar three sheets to the wind and wraps his car around a lamp post and the next morning you find teddy bears at the accident site," he says, "that's a statement that essentially this was a good person who could have been redeemed." It’s hopeful, this idea that people want to believe that there was good in someone - even someone who made some bad life choices.
I must admit, though, that I wonder if they are reading more into the act than is really there. I’ve seen girls give their hardcore boyfriends similar bears for Valentine’s Day – it never surprises me to see the same kind of bear on a roadside memorial. It may simply be a way of saying that they loved them.

There was also some discussion of the creation of ‘sacred space’ and the connection that people feel to a place where a “life-changing event” occurred; of the way that people now feel little sense of personal attachment to religious institutions or formal places of religious significance, like a church or even cemetery. I can see how that could be true - that people see the cemetery as a place where this is just one death amongst many who have died, and use roadside memorials to make a connection to a place intensely personal to the person who died.

Another idea that made me think was whether we brush death under the carpet and do not want to be reminded of our own mortality. The question is, do we need to be in spite of our reluctance? Is it more healthy to have these sharp reminders of the reality of death, or are they just causing unnecessary emotional pain to those who have to see them every day?