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From My Window

Issue Date: May 9, 2019

Memorials

Janie Thibodeau Martin

******

I was thinking about the upcoming Memorial Day today. Memorial Day is intended for tribute to those who died during service to our country, but it is also a time that people visit and honor loved ones who were not service members. My Mom and sister have already visited my father's site on his May 4th birthday; he was a combat veteran. But since I am now living close to the small church cemetery where my in-laws are interred, I like to place seasonally appropriate remembrances at their gravesite and that will be part of my Memorial Day observation this year.

However, this more formal Memorial Day gravesite visit approach to remembering our dead is augmented by other types of tributes. An example is the roadside "shrines" to those killed in traffic accidents. These are very common in the southwest, but you see them here as well " crosses, bows, and painted signs; sometimes accompanied by planted or artificial flowers, shrubs, or stuffed animals. Some shrines are older and unkempt; others show signs of regular maintenance, even mowing.

There is a history attached to these markers. In historical times, travelers who died on the road would be buried nearby, since transporting the body to a formal graveyard might be completely impractical. Now, families sometimes wish to honor their dead at the spot the soul suddenly departed this earth.

Some states have regulations against these roadside shrines. They are often in the right-of-way, where signage or structures are illegal. Some find the shrines distressing, or think they create a distraction for drivers. In some states, a limited time is allowed for the shrines. And in states like Texas and West Virginia, a standard roadside memorial sign is available, with a safe driving message besides the personalization for the departed in lieu of homemade tributes. This ensures shrines are uniform and placed appropriately.

A variation on this kind of memorial is a permanent memorial to people killed in a common disaster or via a common occupation. A very moving example is the memorial to lost fishermen; those who died while working on fishing vessels, located at the Fisherman's Terminal wharf in Seattle. This huge working seaport has a lovely memorial to fishermen who died in one of the United State's most deadly professions. Names are engraved on the memorial in depressingly long columns, with plenty of room for more, and often new names are added between my visits to the site. No bodies are usually recovered after offshore fishing accidents, so no remains may return to land. For those families, this memorial may be the only focal point for grief they have. Personal tributes are left there, including bottles of beer, some empty and some unopened; pictures, letters, articles of clothing like caps, and flowers. I stand there and watch a young man, carrying two duffel bags walk by on his way to his boat. I wonder what goes through his mind as he commits to his voyage in passing the tribute to others who walked the same pier he walks now, but did not return.

In Oklahoma City, a beautiful memorial and museum honor the 168 people, including 19 children, killed by a heartless domestic terrorist whose name I will not give ink to. His sick mind destroyed the lives of many more beyond those killed, and the memorial, with a glass chair for each victim and smaller chairs for the children, brings me to tears. In a fence around the site countless notes, pictures, toys, and floral tributes memorialize the incomparably senseless loss of so many innocent lives.

And on a larger scale yet, the Vietnam wall; paying tribute to all those who died in the line of duty during that war. People also leave personal tributes at this wall after finding the name of a father, son or brother. The National Park service has collected nearly a quarter-million of such items (exempting things like flowers,) and is cataloging them in a warehouse. Because the manpower needed to do this is immense and costly, such collections are not done at the Korean and World War II memorials. But perhaps something about the difficult nature of the Vietnam War experience merits this special treatment.

We are compelled to have these physical reminders of our dead, and to be able to visit spots beyond actual graves that evoke a feeling of closeness to those we have lost. Having these places aids the healing process; and gives us an anchor point at which to grieve and commune with our departed loved ones.

This personalized approach to demonstrating grief is also visible in traditional cemeteries where all sorts of quirky, sad or touching tributes can be found. The day after my grandfather was buried, we visited his grave where someone had placed a Landjager (a traditional Swiss sausage) and a bottle of a local beer he favored. It actually cheered me, and evoked sweet memories, to see it. Children's graves may be decorated with gaily spinning pinwheels, or solar-powered figurines. Sometimes an article is left which evokes the person's profession, or some treasured hobby, like a camouflaged cap, fishing lure or baseball.

Honoring someone by recognizing who they were as an individual seems very fitting to me. I find these tributes and shrines interesting and moving. Whatever healing, hope or comfort they bring to bereaved loved ones justifies them. I say let the roadside shrines be.

I wish all of you comforting memories, peace and pride as you observe Memorial Day in the way that is best for you, but don't forget our war dead, "the reason for the season."

Song stuck in my head, "Morning has Broken" by Cat Stevens. A contemporary treatment of a old Scottish song, with this version featuring beautiful piano, released in 1971 and aging very well.

Happy birthday May 8th, Mom!



You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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