Thursday April 24, 2014





Rothenburger: The ways we find to visit our dead

I’m in a funk today, thinking about dead people.

People find so many ways to die. I knew a kid who dug a tunnel in a sandy hill a few blocks down the street — the tunnel collapsed on him. I had a roomie who was drafted and sent to Vietnam. And there are so many damn diseases.

I read the story this week about the theft of a concrete memorial marker; that’s what got me thinking. When you get mad, you get thinking.

It used to be death markers were reserved for cemeteries but that’s changed.

Fewer and fewer people are being buried. Most are cremated. It’s not illegal to spread ashes on public or private property in B.C., though you’re supposed to get permission from whoever owns the land, which in a lot of cases is the government.

The story about the ashes and the stolen stepping stone made me think of the day we spread the ashes of our parents on a bluff across the lake from their fishing lodge.  We did so with great sadness but also joy in fulfilling their wish to be together again in the place they loved so much.

Then there’s the whole thing about roadside memorials — plastic flowers tied to crosses or photos taped to telephone poles. Smarter people than I have tried to figure out what inner need we fulfil by marking the places where loved ones died.

Roadside memorials are often vandalized by strangers who think they’re morbid and messy, or by relatives or friends who don’t want their grief reopened every time they drive by. Surely, though, roadside memorials are more about life than death, not to mention being a pretty effective message on safe driving.

A dozen years ago, a widow wanted a memorial sign installed on Overlanders Bridge where her husband was murdered, but opted instead for a memorial tree planted in Riverside Park.

However we choose to deal with loss, we want a physical reminder of that person’s time on earth.  Whether it be where they died, where we put them to rest, or some other special place we reserve for our memories, we need a connection. We need to visit, like meeting a friend for coffee.

A long time ago, I stood in the cabin three of my ancestors had holed up in for several days while they fought off a posse. They didn’t die there, but in that place they experienced their last moments of freedom, and a feeling washed over me that was so profound I was left shaking and out of breath.

Spirits are illogical, yet they were there for me.

For my outlaw ancestors, whose bones long ago disappeared under an office tower, that cottonwood cabin is their marker. For my parents, it’s the bluff across the lake. For others, it’s a memorial tree or a park bench.

Such places are sacred. Stupid people who knock over headstones and steal stepping stones don’t get that.

Fortunately, the Killen family’s paver was recovered, just as another family’s memorial sign for their daughter and grand-daughter was returned to them a couple of years ago.

It will happen again, though. Private markers will be stolen, headstones will be pushed over, roadside memorials trashed.

Such desecration is surely one of the cruelest things one human being can do to another. It’s depressing.

armchairmayor@gmail.com


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