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.