Letter From Langdon: Memorials Beyond the Grave

Suddenly, there's something up ahead. We see it and then the roadside memorial fades. Sometimes it seems lives come and go just that fast.

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Losing someone is hard.

No matter how old they are or what the circumstance, it’s difficult to accept loss. When it happens all of us are alike, needing to express grief in our own ways. 

My mother’s baby sister was happy and healthy, always the life of the party at family get-togethers. In her late 50s she died along a Florida roadside in a car accident.

It was tough on the whole clan. There was no big family funeral. She was cremated. My uncle dealt with his grief as best he could and spread her ashes on the ocean near their home in California. We all had a hard time accepting that she was gone.

I guess when we lose something, the first place we look for it is in the last place where we know it was. I always felt a craving to visit the spot where she was killed. It’s final, like closing a door.

The usual way to remember the dead is with a marked grave, but some of us choose instead to mark those actual, awful spots where friends and loved ones died. These days these makeshift memorials are common along rural roadsides.

Some are really very imaginative, like the white painted love seat that faces the setting sun I saw placed along Interstate 435 near Kansas City.

Others are tall enough to be seen in grass and weeds far off the highway, such as those on Interstate 29 consisting of two crosses decorated with wreathes and rechargeable lights. At night the dim lights flicker like candles.

On Missouri Highway 5 an elaborate memorial that I’m sure is maintained by relatives or a friend graces the eastern right of way. My family passed by one day to see a distraught mourner laying down a bouquet of flowers on the spot. A few weeks later, a cross, praying hands, and hand-painted stones had joined the flowers. This one is always well maintained and groomed, at least weekly if not more frequently.

Richard Oswald
The memorial on Missouri Highway 5 is well maintained.

Along some roads in Missouri it seems as though the Missouri Department of Transportation tolerates, even helps, grieving families during mowing season. I’ve driven by memorials situated in tall grass only to see them more plainly in the same spot a day or two later after road crews have mowed. That’s the way it was at another spot on Interstate 29 with a single small remembrance for John and Alyssa: it looked as though a careful MODoT worker respectfully moved it, mowed over the spot, and then replaced the marker unharmed.

But along another popular Missouri highway, where my grandson reported seeing four roadside memorials a week or so before, I found only a single wreath tied to a highway signpost on freshly mowed shoulders.

Roadside memorials seem to be growing in popularity, not just here but in other places like Europe. I suppose one reason might be that cemeteries allow displays only at limited times, such as Easter or Memorial Day, if at all. 

Richard Oswald
These crosses on I 29 are illuminated with flickering lights.

Another consideration may be that burial plots, embalming, and caskets can be expensive. In this time of recession and lost jobs, families may want to do right by their dear departed without taking on new debt.

But my father had his own reasons.

Always a lover of gunstocks and quality furniture, during some family funerals Dad would mourn the rich grained walnut, oak, and cherry lumber we were about to place in the grave in casket form. “What a shame to put a fine piece of wood like that in the ground,” he would say.

The way he saw it, the Lord preserved souls, while Dad’s sacred job here on earth was to defend good wood.

That was about the same time Mother and Dad decided on cremation as their final solution. While it may not be compatible with all beliefs, for them it completed the Common Prayer cycle of earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Mother pondered the question of how to preserve Dad’s memory, but honored his last request that his remains should not be consigned to one particular “place,” even though later on we purchased a family plot in a cemetery adjoining part of our farm.

Richard Oswald
My mother thought it would be nice to put a bench in the family graveyard where people could sit and remember.

After Dad died and was cremated, the family discussed what to do with his ashes. We chose to scatter them on the wind, leaving a little bit of Dad in his three favorite spots: at the grave of his favorite dog, on his garden spot, and in the timber where he hunted wild turkeys. 

Though we were satisfied we’d done the right thing, without a grave and headstone there was nothing to mark his passing. 

At first Mother thought it would be best simply to put both their names on a stone at the burial plot. But after talking to a close friend about other possibilities she chose a simple inscribed marble bench, “So people will have a place to rest when they come to visit,” she said, compliments of Ralph and Merry.

There are probably as many reasons for erecting memorial as there are memorials on our roadsides. Seeing is believing. Maybe that’s why people put them up. The image of a headstone, mementos, religious objects, or pictures helps cement the terrible reality with the memories we want to keep. We can’t hold on forever, but for a time we can share the one spot where that precious soul rose skyward.

Roadside memorials have become a form of folk art — poetic and eloquent expressions of grief. We can experience the mourning, joy, and love, of total strangers, or simply express our own crushing loss.

You never know when or where the next one will appear.

You’re cruising down the highway lost in thought — suddenly there’s something up ahead. Moments pass in the blink of an eye. We’re upon it. Then in a second it lies behind, and the roadside memorial fades at a mile a minute. It almost seems as though lives come and go just that fast.

They will be missed.

 

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