Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Resting Signs

You've seen these I'm sure -- a cross with flowers or ribbons and somebody's name set at the side of the road, marking the place where someone died in a car accident. More recently, I have been seeing makeshift shrines with pictures, candles, flowers, stuffed animals, and whatever springing up at or near death sites -- usually tragic or violent deaths such as shootings. There is a memorial at the curb where a woman died last year, hit in a crosswalk while crossing a busy street, just five minutes walk from my house. More than a year later, fresh flowers and balloons continue to appear at the foot high painted cross there. I remember seeing things like this from time to time when growing up in the South.

This evening I ran across an online discussion on these (on Mefi), with respondents bringing in examples from all over the world. One term for these apparently is descansos, reportedly from the Spanish term for rest, after a traditional practice in places like New Mexico of marking with a cross the places where the pallbearers would pause and set down the coffin for a rest, on the long walk from the town to the cemetery.

Well the word may be Spanish, but the custom seems to be worldwide. Photograpic documentaries of descansos, generally in America, have been put online by Bill Sampson and Dave Nance, along with a discussion of them in the Southwest and Mexico by the Tombstone Traveller ChrisTina Leiner. She links to this fascinating site that shows over 400 roadside memorials in Ireland, many of them elaborate stone or metal plaques. (Interesting links on this site too.) The practice is even showing up in New Zealand. There are those who think these should be preserved, and those who do not.

The online discussion followed in interesting ways some of the points made by Thomas Lynch in the U.S. Catholic article I discussed last week. One point in the discussion was that these were sudden deaths, that there was no time beforehand for those who survived to prepare emotionally, no process of gradual adjustment, of letting go, of saying goodby. Maybe in these cases people simply need more time to come to terms with the reality of death.

Adding to this problem is the distance that modern funeral practices creates between the survivor and death. The graveyard is no longer the patch of land next to the parish church that we walk past each day. Now it is (under well justified and proper modern planning guidelines) off at some distance from our homes, well kept, clean and remote Thomas Lynch speaks of this:

For the past couple generations, we've begun to think the major purpose of funerals is to be a warm, fuzzy event. So very often the dead are disposed of quickly and conveniently. We don't witness our burnings the same way we witness our burials, and what a shame that is.

We have farmed out the corporeal business of dealing with the dead to people like me, to professionals. And in its place put these tastefully upmarket, well-organized, beautiful commemorative events that have really fine finger-food and plenty of mixed media and music and video and, needless to say, uplifting, life-affirming talk. But the dead are not there. And in that sense it's a little bit like going to a Baptism without the baby there.
We seem to need to respond in specific ways to death.  This response is:
  • personal -- it is something we need to do personally, an offering of something unique to ourselves, even if it is only grafitti;
  • physical -- somthing real, something we can touch and see and come back to;
  • social -- death and grief are isolating and seeing others sharing our grief reassures us that we are not alone or abnormal either in grieving, or in valuing the person who has died
  • specific to the person -- we feel that each person is owed some rememberance that is theirs, something that shows that they once lived and mattered;
  • specific to the place -- something we often ignore concerning many spiritual issues, but something that is extremely important
  • repeated over time -- whether on the anniversary of a death or Memorial Day or whatever, we need to find some way of taking this event that has left so much that is ragged and unfinished and weaving it into the rythms of our lives going forward.
And this need appears to be common to all -- not just a matter of a specific cultural or religious tradition, although the particular examples here are Christian in content or influence.

I'm running out of time tonight -- I want to come back to this later, to look at one of the most impressive recent examples of this kind of informal or unconventional memorial, the Temple of Joy at this year's Burning Man. I think all of this should be a strong set of signs to Christians of what needs are driving many who have no definite or developed faith today -- needs that are a tremedous pastoral challenge and evangelical opportunity to us, if we can understand them.

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