In my community and elsewhere, plaques, paid for by family or friends, are sometimes permanently set up in public places where individuals have died, typically in accidents. There’s something about these markers that is bothersome to me. I can totally see commemorating locations where many people have died, such as battle fields, prison camps, or the grounds of the twin towers in NYC, for examples. I can also see the significance, perhaps, of marking the spot where a famous or historical person died. “Here is the house where such-and-so died.”
It’s not that I don’t understand the impetus behind family and friends wanting to commemorate the loss itself. They want their person to be remembered, and I imagine they think they’re honoring the dead person. The trouble is, when I come upon a plaque at the site of a death, instead of thinking kind thoughts about the diseased (who I almost certainly did not know), I begin thinking about the possible gruesome circumstances by which the person died. I don’t think that’s what anyone intends, but I can’t imagine what else might be intended; i.e. a sign at the site of a fatal crash or accident doesn’t make me think about improved safety regulations or driving more cautiously, or anything along those lines. I’m not really sure what’s accomplished by permanently noting the place of an accidental death. Does dwelling on the exact location even help the family and friends of the person?
Also — why should only certain people’s death sites be noted? I mean far and away most people’s are not and I’d have to think money would be a factor in at least some cases. In my own neighborhood, a man died on the street of a heart attack some years back. It was never marked in any way. (I temporarily marked it with a flower that was gone in a week.) For some time after, I’d look at the spot and think about the man, who I did not know, and think also of how that location must feel to his family, who lived in the immediate area.
I feel similarly about “Ghost Bike” installations. These are bicycles which have been painted white and are permanently installed at the site of a bicyclist’s death. I didn’t know quite what to make of these when I first became aware of them, but now, several years later, I think they simply make me uneasy. Again, because all they do is elicit unpleasant thoughts of the nature of the death. They don’t make me rally for improved bike safety or write my congressman to press for legislation that’ll make drivers and bicyclists coexist more peaceably. They’re creepy – maybe that’s the point? And I say this as a bicyclist myself. I’ve recently seen one set up in front of a residence, that is, not near traffic or roads, and I really don’t know what to think about that one.
In my community, to memorialize a death of any sort, people can “purchase” a tree, or even a park bench that’s installed in a public spot with a small plaque listing the diseased’s name and birth/death dates. Sometimes, it’ll also include a more personal touch like, “beloved father and husband” or “she loved gardening and walking.” A sweet one I saw included what must’ve been a common refrain by the diseased, something along the lines of, “Oh, how glorious!” I like these memorials – they contribute something to the community and make me stop and think, and not only about how someone died.