Painful Commemorations

Painful Commemorations

I have made passing reference before to the increasing presence of roadside memorials: the 21st century secular form of commemoration of loved ones tragically killed in disquieting urban accidents. The withered decaying flowers wrapped in soiled and ripped cellophane are, on some stretches of road, a continuing haunting reminder of the random unfairness of life.

Sometimes the commemorative spot becomes a more formal memorial. There are a couple of these permanent shrines in the park I regularly walk. Every daily jogger and dogwalker who pauses to cast more than a passing glance at them is reminded of the drownings of two young lads which took place in particularly tragic circumstances a few years ago.

It was high summer, and one victim drowned trying to (unsuccessfully) save his friend. The awfulness of this is hard to imagine, but the massive pile of unwrapped flowers left strewn for months at the spot was clear testament to the grief of their families and friends.

Flowers however were not the only means on that occasion of expressing emotion. The council had recently completed a wonderful refurbishment of the park. It was one of the many millenium initiatives in this area, and it was welcomed by all regular visitors. Victorian stone follies were cleaned and repaired, alongside a number of ancient bandstands, and new benches placed everywhere. All these clean sparkling surfaces provided just too much temptation for the grieving peers of the deceased, and in the course of the weeks following the drowning, every single available and reachable section of wood or stone throughout the entire park was covered in grim graffiti expressing platitudes of loss and love.

I don’t know whether it was hundreds of youngsters involved in this wanton vandalism or just a few particularly upset kids repeating themselves over and over. I do remember being puzzled and not a little disconcerted by the realisation that this destructive form of commemoration seemed to pass by unremarked by the local press or council. Benches as far as a kilometre away from the scene were vandalised, and I wondered what form of mass hysteria had taken hold of this entire group? Was it mean-spirited and churlish of me to begrudge them their outpourings of expression in this way?

With the passing of the years, the graffiti has retreated and faded, and the anniversary of the accident is the only time the flowers reappear, but I still wonder why care isn’t taken to arrange them, make them beautiful, and then tend them and remove them when they start to fade and decay. What sort of memorial is it in this society which allows beauty to become an eyesore? Are we so removed from established practices of rituals of death and mourning that a few scattered dead bunches of flowers are the most comforting way of remembering loved ones?

I don’t know why this disturbs me so much. Each to his or her own, I suppose.

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4 responses to Painful Commemorations

  1. I have often wondered the same things about these small roadside shrines. One bunch of flowers that had been meaningfully attached to a lamp post in a busy road that I passed every day was left to decay for over a year. Do the council just not see these things? Are they left there on purpose? It is an interesting modern phenomenon that I think is motivated by people’s search for reason in an unreasonable world.

    • gillianholding – Author

      I think it is very odd. I wonder if the council believes that in some way it will be pilloried if it ignores the feelings of the bereaved. But then it’s another example of society at large becoming unable or unwilling to take a balanced view of individual ‘rights’ weighed against the good of society in general. But then there’s also the issue of individual responsibility to both the community at large and to the deceased. The tending of graves has always been an important issue, and for as long as there are living mourners who care, graves are traditionally looked after with care. That just doesn’t seem to apply in the case of these roadside memorials.

  2. I loathe these temporary shrines. I have warned my family that if I am ever killed, accidentally or on purpose, in some public spot, not to go laying flowers or to encourage anyone else to do so. Perhaps, on my part, it’s a British dislike of not displaying personal grief in public; but mostly I think it’s a dislike of random strangers and those who barely knew the deceased looking for a little attention, to be admired as sympathetic and somehow worthy.

  3. There are anonymous groups throughout the world that call themselves ‘garden guerillas’. They beautify unkempt little bits of land, usually in urban centres. Maybe what the world needs is anonymous groups of people who can turn these memorial shrines into something more than a pile of withered flowers.

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