Dignity in the Eye of the Beholder

"Yahrtzeit candle" by Elipongo - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yahrtzeit_candle.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Yahrtzeit_candle.JPG
“Yahrtzeit candle” by Elipongo – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We see them on the sides of roadways, interstates, under bridges, and at dangerous intersections.  They are those plastic memorials to remember those killed in an accident. Each are constructed to be weather-proof so that they can withstand the punishment of a hard rain or snowstorm.  I often look at them as I drive swiftly by, wondering more about the grieving family or loved ones than the actual person who was killed.  These are people who out of love and grief have established these ad-hoc memorials.  They attach as great a meaning to them as the grave or urn in which their loved ones might literally rest.  As I go past, I think about how often they must visit this homemade memorial in order to maintain it.  I also think about how difficult it has to be when they drive by possibly going to work, picking up groceries, the kids from school, etc.  It must be heartbreaking.

A couple of months ago, someone driving a motorcycle at great speed in the very early morning hours close to the entrance of our community, drove over three different concrete medians and was instantly killed.  The area was quickly roped off and officers were on the scene taking pictures and writing their reports for several hours.  Fortunately the person didn’t hit anyone else, and there were no other injuries or fatalities.  The newspaper reported later that he had a very high blood alcohol content.

A memorial was quickly created for him at the edge of the sidewalk area where he was killed.  I pass it nearly every day on my morning walks.  To my knowledge, it is the first such roadside memorial that I’ve ever seen up close.  There are all kinds of unlit candles large and small, pictures of the deceased, poems written on all-weather material, and small tokens from his life.  Every few days it appears that a loved one comes by to straighten, add, or remove.  Shortly after the memorial was created, an empty bottle of foreign-made liquor was strategically placed near his picture.  I assume it was the man’s favorite booze.  Thankfully, it was removed in fairly short order.

Each time I walk by, I think about the propriety of creating such a memorial for someone who not only took his own life so carelessly but might have also killed someone else.  I haven’t come to any great conclusions about it.  I suppose that because no innocent victim was killed, the memorial is itself harmless.  Still, I am conflicted by its presence.

A very different type of memorial I’ve noticed only within the last ten years or so, is the practice of inscribing names of loved ones on the rear windows of cars or pick-up trucks. I try to fight what might be a class observation about this because I have no idea who the people in the vehicles are, and I certainly don’t think of myself as better or more enlightened because I choose not to do such a thing.  However, in all honestly I could never see myself wanting to do something like that.  My car is not a memorial; if anything it is an extension of my own personality (a gas-saving economy Toyota) and certainly not of anyone else.  Of course, the satiric side of me thinks it might be funny to actually buy a used car with such a memorial on its rear window.  When people ask if “RIP Uncle Leo, 1924-2013” was a family member, it would be fun to explain, no, it was the former owner’s uncle.   I do have some history of doing this: in my early bachelor apartments I used to buy photo frames and keep the display pictures of models in them.  Friends thought I was awfully witty.

Each of my parents’ funerals and remains were handled differently.  My mother is buried in a grave in Southern California.  I have visited it only twice.  My father, casting aside Jewish custom, wanted to be cremated because he didn’t want precious funds spent for an expensive burial.  We had hoped to place his ashes inside my mother’s casket, but somehow we were never able to do so for logistical and probably legal or religious reasons.  My father’s ashes sit in some container at my youngest sister’s home. I’m told she’s not happy about keeping them.  I would take them off her hands because I believe Dad would love to join me each evening during cocktail hour.  But like most things within the complicated set of relationships that each of my siblings and I have, none of us ask about or offer to take his remains.  Since the passing of both of my parents, our familial relationships often seem like competitive chess matches, with each move contemplated for quite a long time before finally played.

On the anniversary of either my Mom or Dad’s death, I light what’s called a Yahrzeit candle to memorialize their life.  They are also lit on Yom Kippur when we collectively honor those who are no longer with us.  These candles last for 24 hours and make wonderful night lights when lit.  One sister, a slave to strict interpretation, lights her Yahrzeit according to the Jewish calendar date only, which always differs from the more conventional Gregorian one.  She recently went as far as to write up a handy guide for all of us to follow for future years.  Another sister lights the candle on the anniversary date of the Gregorian calendar only because it’s easier for her to remember.  I will sometimes light on both days to cover all bases.  I think a candle is a wonderful way to commemorate someone.

We all remember someone differently.  At my mother’s funeral, two of my sisters read heartfelt eulogies that made everyone cry.  I went last according to age, and not to brag, and please pardon the pun, but I completely killed. I had ’em rolling in the aisles about Mom’s quirks.  Sadly, I was as sick as a dog with the flu at my dad’s funeral, and it was all could do to just hold it together to be there and not spread my germs on anyone. After it was over, I went straight back to the hotel but stopped at the bar first for a shot of Scotch (his favorite).  I knew he would have approved.

In the end, we all make our own judgments on how to remember a loved one.  Joe DiMaggio used to send a dozen roses to Marilyn Monroe’s grave.  Who can argue with a loving gesture like that?   The point is to remember, to love, to honor, and to give some meaning to the person’s life.

I never knew the motorcyclist killed just outside my condo development.  But I do know he has loved ones, and they apparently are still hurting.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll stop and just say a quick prayer for them as I walk past his memorial.  We may be different in the way we live our lives, but in the end we all have feelings.  And to feel is the most important emotion that there is.

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19 thoughts on “Dignity in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. Red button issue here with this one, for me.

    These memorials drive me crazy. There is one about a mile down the road from my house. “Vanessa” was a 16 year old who died because she was texting and driving. There is a memorial for a good 12 feet around the tree she hit. A stone with her name engraved. A bench (hideous lime green). Flowers and teddy bears and balloons. By all accounts she was a delightful girl and well loved. But it is wrong, in my mind. to establish a memorial to someone’s stupidity. There I said it. She shouldn’t have been texting and driving. PERIOD. Now, the folks who own the house with the tree she rammed into have this mawkish memorial out front. So THEY can never forget or even get away from the night when they saw a young girl die, bloody and broken.

    Sorry to go off. These memorials bother me very much. Just in case you can’t tell.

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    1. Nah, I’d feel that way too. This memorial I wrote about is thankfully quite small — you’d miss it if you drove by probably. But I think the one you’re speaking of where you live sounds truly inappropriate. Those homeowners will have a decision to make one of these days soon. I feel for them…

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    1. Thanks, Nina! When my Dad was in his eighties he said he was always shocked to look in the mirror because the older he got, the more he felt like a little boy. I think I understand what he meant, and I suspect it’ll resonate more hopefully when I’m the same age.

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  2. My wife would agree with Elyse, re: A Red Button for this topic. She hates the memorials and thinks they should be removed. But, not all are a monument to stupidity. I spent the month of November in a little town on the Oregon Coast and during that time, a horrible thing happened 20 miles up the road in Newport. A mother threw her 6 year old son off the Yaquina Bay Bridge, to his death. A memorial immediately sprung up, and grew, and grew, and grew, at one end of the bridge. Dozens of stuffed animals, some of them huge, flowers, both real and artificial, all sorts of toys. The collection must have been several yards long the last time I drove across that bridge. It represented an outpouring of caring and affection from that community for one of its own, gone too soon. The display had great meaning for a lot of people. But, yes, after the first rain, it looked like a godforsaken mess and, I suspect, city officials probably had to remove it before long, as it was sure to become a hazard, or, at the very least, a blight. A difficult subject.

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    1. A tough story, Tip. I think those things really are judgment calls for a community. In your sad example it sounds like the memorial ran its course, and I suspect those who lived there probably were fine with it taken down. But, yes, many go on too long.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. My gut reaction to these impromptu memorials would be along the same lines as what Elyse shared, in that I have a real problem with them. I live in a part of the country where certain cultures wholeheartedly embrace this practice, so it would be fair to say that there are literally hundreds of these type memorials peppering the streets of the city. It doesn’t matter if you are going to the bank, or the grocery store, or the library, or picking up some fast food chicken … the chances that you will pass a sidewalk memorial are about guaranteed, each and every time you leave the house. It became so pervasive that there were city ordinances written to prohibit them from being established, which did absolutely nothing towards minimizing the number of such memorials. They are everywhere. Most are bedraggled and faded, or are emblazoned with garish banners made of reflective sequins and glitter, and many have large photos lashed to the closest tree or structure, or piles of stuffed animals or plastic flower arrangements.

    I understand a family is grieving, and that perhaps it is part of their culture that each death should be memorialized by erecting such a shrine located at the exact spot a person dies. It isn’t that I don’t have empathy for the grieving family, or that I condemn a practice that I clearly don’t support. My biggest point of contention is that perhaps there should be a reasonable time limit, in that it gives the family a place to commemorate the death of their loved one for a short time after the person passed, but that the memorial should not exist in perpetuity. Of course, I also recognize that because I live in this part of the country, these memorials are part of the landscape, and anything I think or believe about them is of no consequence.

    But, yes, they do rub me the wrong way.

    With that being said, I have two singular experiences that go against everything I just stated. One, when I was not quite twenty, my fiance was killed by an eighteen wheeler while riding his Harley to work one morning, and his family quickly erected such a memorial on the side of the highway. I spent many an hour weeping at this place, pouring out my pain. A year later the memorial was removed, (ironically in accordance with a new city ordinance that had just been passed), but the pain is still there whenever I pass that spot on the highway. The memorial may be gone, but the memory is still very much alive.

    And secondly, in 1996, while working for a major corporation, I found myself traveling on business to Oklahoma City, and while there, had to meet a colleague across the street from the site of the bombing at the Alfred Murrah federal building. I really have no words for how it impacted me to see a very long chain link fence adorned with all sorts of memorabilia, from tiny baby shoes to tubes of lipstick to handwritten notes and tiny scraps of burned clothing. The makeshift memorials that spring up after such a tragedy are perhaps holier than any church I’ve ever visited, and I would never any think of denying the families of those that were lost this place to leave behind some token of their loved one, as a way of honoring their memories.

    Obviously, my thoughts on the subject are conflicted. On the one hand, I’m inundated by makeshift memorials on every street in the city, and am weary of seeing them litter the landscape with their plastic flowers and glittery banners. On the other hand, I have personal experience in how these makeshift memorials can give us a place to focus our grief, even if only for a brief amount of time while we figure out how to move forward in healing our hearts after the death of a loved one. And then there is the other category, such as the example given by Tip Oz at the Yaquina Bay Bridge, or the Oklahoma City bombing, or the World Trade Center.

    In the spirit of compromise, rather than allow my reaction to be one of frustration or anger when I pass the next such memorial, (and there is no doubt that I will see another one the next time I venture out of the house), perhaps I will take a cue from you, and simply say a prayer for the family, and leave it at that. Which, unexpectedly, reminds me of something my mother always used to do, back when I was busy driving her from one doctor’s appointment to the next. Every time we were in the car, and we had to pull over to the right for an emergency vehicle, she would immediately drop her head and say a prayer for the family. Sometimes I still catch myself doing the same thing, I suppose in some way, to keep my mother’s memory alive. Another prayer, being thrown into the Universe, that someone somewhere might find a bit of comfort.

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    1. Thanks for your cogent thoughts, and I am sorry for your own experience with such a memorial. I do agree that it’s a very complicated subject that sometimes involves different values for different people. I wish there was an easy answer to this, but sadly there probably is none.

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  4. HI SNAKES: Interesting piece on those roadside memorials. My wife finds them tasteless, I find them sad. As you wrote, imagine driving past them day after day. Personally, I’d have to leave town if one of my boys died in a car accident — and no, I would not build a roadside memorial. That would remain in my heart. But, again, we all have different ways of expressing our grief. So be it.
    I haven’t written much lately because we are in the throes of this asinine PARCC test.

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  5. It ‘is’ so interesting how we all memorialize, celebrate, or pay homage to those who have passed on in very different ways. My Christian (Seventh Day Adventist) upbringing taught me that when a person dies the body goes to the grave, the life ceases to exist until the return of Jesus at Resurrection. (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 to 18). Therefore visiting the grave is not really a custom we practice but instead we pray that the individual had made their heart right with the Lord, so we may see them again in heaven, should we also make our hearts right with the Lord by the time of HIS return.

    Since the passing of my dad, April 1 will be the 2nd anniversary, I try to remember the funny, good times, since after all he passed on April first — who wants to be sad on All Fools Day? I chat with him in my head about work and the weather, since those are the things we talked about most, and then I move on, sometimes checking in on mom to see how she’s doing, or checking on my brother since he was home longer and around them both more than was (I left home at 19, my brother left at 28).

    In all, I am so enriched when I hear/learn/observe the many differences of the human race. I love diversity!

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  6. Having lost my cousin, who I was very close to, a couple of years ago in a car accident (she was a passenger and the driver was not at fault) I choose to remember her and honour her in such a way that it is not immediately obvious to others but holds a great deal of meaning to me.

    My first step was to get a small tattoo of her name un Chinese on my right ankle (some may think this tacky, but I did it for myself and my cousin, not the opinion of others). It is somewhere only I will see (unless I choose to show others) and is my way of carrying her memory with me with each step I take in life.

    Another way in which I choose to honour her is to take up the role of ‘aunt’ to her niece and nephew, both of who were very young when she died. I talk to them regularly about the woman their aunt was, how she would have loved to see them grow etc. I do the kinds of things with them that she would have done had she still been here. I also made a photo ‘memory’ book for them to look through when they are older and a DVD full of pictures of their aunt from when she was a baby and to the year she died.

    How we choose to grieve and express this is down to the person themselves, it is not for anyone else to pass judgement on that. Each to their own, I say.

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