By Mike Welsh
Jennifer was killed near my place a few years ago. While I’m not sure exactly when and how she died, I do know she is sorely missed, at least by her mother. It is clear she perished after a vehicle left the road and hit a large tree. Apart from that I know that her mother wants her memory to live on.
How do I know about Jennifer? There is a bright and uncluttered roadside memorial attached to a large tree just around the corner from my place.
I wasn’t aware the memorial was dedicated to Jennifer until recently. The tribute to Jennifer is always simple and fresh and unavoidable. Flowers and messages mainly. But today I couldn’t avoid the large, personal sign which appeared.
I’ve conducted several interviews on my radio program with the authors of books on the subject of Roadside memorials. Apparently there are scores of books available on the topic, mostly filled with poignant pictures of wooden crosses on the sides of highways from all around the world. Although in some parts of the world tributes are distinctly different. In Ireland for example you’ll see actual headstones or piles of rock with a cross atop. In Canada they are more organised. The government pays for a bunch of crosses with the deceased person’s name and a road safety message included.
It’s almost impossible to drive by a roadside memorial without giving some thought to what you see. There’s no confusion. But there is always, to someone, a tragic story attached.
Is it sobering and upsetting if there’s a cuddly toy and photo frame featuring a child in amongst the flowers and candles? A child perished at that spot.
Often when a teenager dies in a car smash their peers shower a makeshift memorial site with all manner of items. Cans of alcohol, footy caps and scarves, graffiti. They have few other ways of dealing with the loss. These mostly fade with the months and years. Others are meant to be permanent.
I’ve often wondered as I pass the tribute near my place whether the extensive maintenance undertaken to keep the memorial alive actually helps the family left behind deal with its loss. Is it none of my business? Was it disrespectful of me to take and publish a photo of Jennifer’s site?
Some experts in the field of grief and loss suggest the concept of roadside memorials is more about those who are, or wish to be, unconventional. Church and graveyard displays are the traditional manner in which to remember the departed.
And while from a practical viewpoint, local governments grapple with this sensitive issue, it seems there are those who find the concept of roadside memorials distasteful and even offensive.
The Separation of Church and State issue, surprisingly, rears its boofhead. Because most sites include a cross, a universal sign of death and loss, this automatically also means Christianity and that, for some, just won’t do. This was the basis for a change of the law in the state of Florida in the late 90s.
It’s also distressing to learn of in incident in Portland, Oregon several years ago. Somebody decided it was ok to compact the grief of a family by erecting signs featuring black crosses with a red slash though them. The Black Prince’s calling card “666” was tossed in for greater effect. Not to mention memorials ripped out only to be replaced, time and time again by grieving relatives.
And of course there is always the old chestnut about the distraction sites create for passing motorists.
But all I can think of at this time of year is Jennifer’s mother and her grief and another Christmas they won’t share.