I know you have probably seen one, too. Sitting at a stoplight…happening to glance over to the side of the road outside your car window…you see a small roadside memorial to someone who, likely, had died near there in an automobile accident. Perhaps there was a wooden cross, a teddy bear or two, maybe a name. Last month right around all the high school and college graduations I saw a roadside memorial adorned with the tassel of the graduating senior whose commencement would forever be her or his crowning moment.
How do you react when you see such humble displays? What is the thinking of those who erect such monuments to a deceased loved one?
Some of the most poignant visual images following the World Trade Center attacks were the memorials that popped up on fences and street posts and building walls. For a while these were not memorials, but pleas for information on missing loved ones. “Have you seen this man?” “Do you know this woman?” But soon the hope faded and in the place of the telephone numbers and other contact information were the memorials. Images frozen in time: of a now-dead father holding a little baby, silly grin on his face as he proudly displayed his first-born…of a now-dead sister rail-side on a cruise ship, showing off the clothes she purchased for her long-awaited vacation.
These memorials were all the more stunning because of the vast scale of them. Not just a small white cross at a busy intersection, but a whole community of monuments to the deceased.
I was in “the neighborhood” the other day, buying hair supplies. During my hour or so there, I saw three people wearing “dead man” t-shirts, memorial shirts with the images, names—and the sadly brief documented lifespan—of casualties of our urban war on our citizens. The air brushed art work was stunningly beautiful. In one shirt the deceased young man posed alongside late rapper Tupac. I cannot speak for the young man, since I did not know him, but the likeness of Tupac was amazingly accurate.
How does it feel to wear such a shirt? How does it feel to have a closet full of such shirts?
Many people are turned off by the sideshow that follows the deaths of many famous people. Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Steve McNair. It has been said that we can be voyeuristic when it comes to the lives—and deaths—of those in the public eye. Sagging magazine and newspaper sales then soar. Tributes fill the airwaves. The insatiable hunger for any tidbit about the circumstances of the celebrity’s final days and death demands meals out of even the most insubstantial crumbs of half-truths, speculation, and outright lies.
Those who are mourning, or who otherwise feel a loss, can become lumped into descriptions of the three-ring circus. Maybe because they are most visible, they can become the biggest targets of public scorn and derision. “But you didn’t even know him personally.” “Why was her life worth more than any number of other human beings who died the same day, but who were not well known.” “This shows how messed up our society is—how much we worship fame and fortune.” I remember when singer/actress Aaliyah died. I read from someone, marveling at the outpouring of grief by some young people, something to the effect of, “She hadn’t even achieved that much. It is not as if she were Aretha Franklin or something.”
Who has a “right” to grieve?
Evolution has given us humans many gifts. But they come at a price. We are acutely aware of our own mortality. The deaths of others remind us how short our earthly lives are. Some of us do not so much fear death as we fear death followed by being forgotten. Being forgotten means it is as if we were never here to begin with. Being forgotten erases what brief life we had. The rituals we enact around the deaths of others—famous and not, old and young—help us to remember.
They do more, though. Somewhere there is an elderly church mother who attends every funeral of every church member or church member’s relative. She cooks for the fellowship meal following the funerals, investing her own time and meager financial resources to fry enough chicken or bake enough cheese-infused pasta to feed a horde of grieving family and friends—many who she does not even know. What is the point? Is she just some sort of voyeur who enjoys the emotions and attention? Or does she feel she is only doing for others what she hopes someone will do for her when her time comes?
Sometimes at the stoplight I see the small cross and teddy bears out of the corner of my eye and I make a point not to look. I am not in the mood to see a roadside memorial today. If I think of it at all, I think how foolhardy it was for someone to stand so close to the dangerous road that killed their loved one, just to place an old teddy bear and handmade sign that will look ratty and sad following the first heavy rain anyway.
But it is hard to escape these displays for long. At some point I will look.