Voicing Loss in Public Space

I spent the weekend with my niecelings, which seemed to be completely antithetical to blogging.  (I guess there’s no such thing as an AuntieBlogger — too exhausting!)

Being with the girlies pushed the sadness about Barnett a little bit to the side, but the train ride and some overly pointed songs in the ipod lineup pushed me back into sobering and reflective mode.  After my post last week about writing something “in honour of” someone who may not be there to read it, I’ve been pondering the act of memorializing, and what the narratives we construct to commemorate do for us.

The Festschrift I’m writing the chapter for is a concrete kind of tribute that’s easily parsed.  One of Barnett’s deepest driving hopes has been to create something on the earth that matters.  He has done that, in his work and writing, created a kind of way of making meaning of what we do to be human that adds another dimension to the world of knowing.  The obvious thing to commemorate that, to me, is a book that extends his work, grows it, acknowledges it in both emotional and theoretical terms.

That kind of memorializing is simple to comprehend — if difficult to accomplish.  But I’ve been really intrigued by an emergence in the past couple of decades of sort of “artisinal” — or maybe, hand-crafted — memorials.

I stopped at the Apple store last weekend to pick up a couple of pairs of earphones (they just jump out of my purse, it seems), and even on a glorious, holiday Sunday, the place was crammed.  And many people were adding to the memorial for Steve Jobs.

I almost typed “spontaneous” before the word memorial, but really, these secular memorials have developed a predictable grammar of their own.  I’ve been increasingly curious at the proliferation of roadside memorials, the drifts of flowers and stuffed animals when someone beloved and renowned has died, the fixing of “unofficial” tributes.  I think the earliest ones I noticed were an outpouring when a woman was killed in a robbery-gone-amok in a restaurant called Just Desserts in Toronto in the early 90s, the absolute sea of flowers and candles at Kensington Palace when Princess Diana died,  the roadside crosses in rural areas to commemorate car crashes.

Similar memorials have appeared in the past decade or so in the city, usually affixed to lamp posts, and with fewer religious overtones.  A couple near my place I’ve noticed in the past few months are pretty typical.  This one, at College and Bathurst, is kind of the arbiter of these urban tributes, just flowers affixed tightly to a lamp-post on the corner.

These are, I’m sure spontaneous, but there is an emerging common narrative — they’re hand-crafted in some way, and usually placed conspicuously in some way to cause people to pause in day to day flurry to notice a loss.  Sometimes, there is a picture or name of the person who’s lost, but sometimes it’s more of a generic message “Someone was lost here.  We/I miss this person.  Notice this.”

Some of them are more complex and construct a fragmented portrait of the person lost.

This one, down on lakeshore between Bathurst and Strachan, has the same tight adhesion, the requisite trope of flowers, the almost as common stuffed animal.  This little bear? Dog?  looks well-weathered, either beloved by the person who was lost or a treasure of someone who misses him or her.  And uniquely, for this one, they’ve constructed a complex, rotating little flower with writing on each petal, butterfly at the centre.  The  inner petals have letters that seem to spell SAMMIE, and there is a message on each of the petals.  RIP Sam…. something about “Mother’s day so hard, love forever, mum.”

A heartbreaking public declaration of the most private of griefs.

Occupying space between the deeply personal hand-crafted memorials and the public ones are the ones that blend private grief with public statements, like the “ghost bikes” dotting the city.

These two bikes are on Lakeshore, just south of High Park, and they’re a blend of the political, conveying “bikes belong on the road/it’s dangerous to be a cyclist” along with poignant, brief sketch evoking the individuals lost. Again, flowers, and some sort of commemoration like sparkly garland that lightly acknowledges something about the vividness of the person’s life.

The Ottawa Citizen reported yesterday about a cyclist killed by a car who’d been commemorated by a “ghost bike” just this week. The piece seems to underline something key about these kinds of makeshift memorials that have developed a formality about them:  creating space for people to pay attention to life and death in the middle of busy worlds.

It really isn’t that complicated to parse, this notion that as we live in a more distributed world, communities stretched further in distance and real time and paced out in texts and online posts and emails — in that context, we have an impulse to create moments in time to pause, to ask someone to notice that someone is grieving.   People’s formal burial and mourning rituals have changed dramatically over the past few decades — most of the people I know want to be cremated and scattered somewhere, not buried in the same cemetery as their relatives have been for generations.  There are still cemeteries — some that double as parks, like Mt. Pleasant — and some whose recreational space has supplanted the older purpose, like the park a few blocks away from my that’s built on a land that must include an old cemetery. In commemoration of that shift in the meaning of the space, the park designers moved several of the old headstones into a close line, a marker for what was, the lost life of the space as well as the lost lives.

I think the impulse that drives the hand-creation of memorials is a close cousin the ones that emerge around the public gatherings, like the Jobs tributes at Apple stores and the recent, unprecedented outpourings in chalk when Jack Layton died.  Many of the notes were very personal, the same kind of memorializing as the individual memorials, a moving inscription of the diversity of Toronto.

And… as the week progressed, the chalk postings became about the act of memorial posting itself, a meta-commentary on the community outpouring as an enactment of Layton’s hopes and inspiration.

Memorial as community activism, as public gratitude.

This form of memorializing is a fascinating claim of public space to voice loss, a kind of meaning making about the Profound and the Unsayable when there are fewer common rituals, fewer people who follow organized religious paths for this. The repertoire of characteristics of a highly personal, hand-crafted, informal activity has emerged almost as a script — familiar tropes like flowers and stuffed animals, recognizable signals like the ghost bikes, a layering over and over of the same acts of gratitude.  Temporal in every sense — worldly icons that are less designed to accompany the person to the afterlife than to assert a reminder of the presence and impact of the person in their human time.  Memorials that are inherently temporary, an assertion of a moment, designed to be cleared away at an appropriate time by the Apple Store staff or City street cleaners or washed away by the rain.


4 thoughts on “Voicing Loss in Public Space

  1. What a wonderful post! I actually have a blog about spontaneous shrines [spontaneousshrines.wordpress.com] and I’m always intrigued by people’s varied reactions to grassroots memorialization. I am fascinated by your point that communities have become spread out in space and time and that the death of a person is also the loss of someone in that space. I look forward to reading more.

  2. A ghost bike hugs a post along County Road 34 (I think), outside of Leamington – near Wheatley – where a teenager was struck and killed while returning from an errand. It imprinted its vision in my brain last June and was verified in a follow-up story about the driver’s trial a few months later.

  3. And how does one erase the spontaneous outpourings following Diana’s death – and which seemingly effected significant change in the monarchical response to tragedy.

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