I saw another of those shrines recently. The homemade kind; the sort usually made for children killed by accident or predator, constructed of teddy bears and ribbons and corner store flowers, misspelled notes of shock and longing, bible verses and photographs, crudely drawn construction paper sympathy cards, candles, votives, and always some odds and ends inexplicable to the uninitiated – hats, t-shirts, stuffed animals – the detritus of lives connected to the deceased, crushed and made meaningless by terrible loss.
And you don’t have to be a high profile murder victim to get one. Car crash sites are popular, as are store front pavements or stricken family’s front lawns, or the drop off lane in front of the local primary school if the terrible, accidental moment happened there.
The shrines are simultaneously deeply moving and faintly ridiculous – so real and so surreal at the same time: how’s a teddy bear in a cowboy hat and a pair of plastic six shooters going to get us out of THIS agony you think.
Where are the rent garments and handfuls of hair torn from grieving heads, instead of this alter to the god Hallmark?
Still, it’s what people DO when they can do nothing else. It began long before, but reached a crazy peak when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris. The flower tributes dropped off in front of Kensington Palace (and in the Parisian tunnel, and at her ancestral home in Northamptonshire, and not a few in a nose-thumbing gesture directed at the Queen outside Buckingham Palace) soon rose up as high as an elephant’s eye before spreading wildly and widely sideways. The bizarre blanket stitched together from ribbon-tied bouquets and ‘Candle in the Wind’ songsheets, photographs lovingly clipped from magazines and newspapers, and with farewell notes sheathed in plastic as if the writers were well aware that their personal eulogies would be hanging around long after the Princess’s funeral cordon had passed by.
(And they were right and they did.)
Still, I don’t know how I feel about these crowd-created holy places. Do they honour the individuals or trivialize them somehow? When anybody can drop by and drop off a note that reads: “So long Sally – I didn’t know you, but I pray for your eternal soul” what does it mean? Do they continue to pray for Sally? Does the gesture signify anything beyond a 21st century knee-jerk reaction to a top of the local news type story that fascinates and horrifies for a moment, then is gone and forgotten with the requisite placement of a plush toy and a ribbon-anchored heart-shaped mylar balloon?
It’s really not for me to say. But from what I can gather, it does indeed comfort the family left behind. It has meaning and value and moment for them.
We need these public rituals, official rememberings and heartfelt (if sometimes weird – I saw a pair of frilly underpants placed at one of those shrines once and I still don’t know what it meant) messages sent into the ether in order to take final notice before moving on.
And heaven knows, as far as the war goes, it may remain virtually the only way we have left of paying tribute to the dead.
Steven Harper appears to be re-considering his no-press policy for Canadian soldiers’ bodies arriving home from the fracas in Afghanistan and Iraq, following the hue and cry that reached a crescendo when Canada’s first fallen female soldier arrived home unremarked upon by a banned media contingent. But his ‘no flags at half mast save Remembrance Day’ edict shows either a steely consistency, or an eerie blindness to a country’s need to publicly acknowledge ultimate sacrifice.
He has been resolute in insisting the decision is one made to offer the families of the fallen the privacy they need to mourn, but in the absence of families actually requesting such space and solitude, the command rings hollow. Hollower still when you realize no similar policy has been announced for police and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
It just doesn’t pass the smell test. It stinks.
It would be sickening to think it is simply a policy aping the American one – the one that fears too much reality may undermine an administration’s right to send soldiers to their deaths whensoever and wheresoever they please.
Because for Americans, outside of a few photographs released following freedom of information demands, the dissemination of images of flag-draped coffins are as elusive and rare as child pornography – and treated with pretty much the same eyes squinched shut disgust by the wartime White House.
A White House that would much rather tie a ribbon round an old oak tree than make the tough decisions that would make ribbon tying – save for those who die innocently and accidentally – a thing of the past.
We need a new tribute, a new official day and symbol aimed at educating world leaders in the desires of their citizenry – like red ribbons for AIDS awareness, or pink for breast cancer education.
A yellow no-more-yellow-ribbons ribbon.
Wear it with pride.