The whole world’s a graveyard.

Many many many many years ago, I wrote a column for my ex-employer about makeshift memorials. If it wasn’t the hot new trend that was sweepin’ the nation, it was the first I noticed it. There was a little cross that stood along the bike path I used, periodically refreshed by its tender; it marked the place where a jogger had been killed by a teenage motorist. The dead man’s wife said she felt closer to her late husband there, where he died, than in the cemetery where his body lies, the conventional place for mourning.

At the time, “makeshift memorial” hadn’t entered the lexicon. With the exception of crosses like this, and the elaborate ghetto murals/shrines to fallen gangbangers (which earnest grad students told us were rooted in various ethnic heritage rituals), they were only starting to pop up in the wider culture. But when they did, it didn’t take long. Two kids die when their car fails to beat a train at the crossing? Their friends flock to the spot and leave beer bottles, cigarettes and teddy bears.

Some memorials had a little higher profile. Some, higher still.

As a square ol’ suburban American who religious training was traditional and conventional, I fall in The Onion camp:

To cope with this incalculable loss of life, within hours of the accident, the citizens of Mound City responded with a spontaneous outpouring of crappy mementos. Despite the presence of such disturbing reminders of the crash as tire marks, headlight shards, and blood-stained pavement, Mound City residents have come here day after day, adding more tacky shit to the steadily growing pile.

But I’m open-minded about it. There is no correct way to grieve. Young people in particular are always astonished by their first brush with unexpected death, and as traditional religious rituals fall by the wayside, so too do the long-established ways of mourning. They want to stand in front of a pile of crap with a candle in a paper cup, hold hands and cry. As I recall, Ashley wrote me a nice note after Dale Earnhardt died, explaining rather succinctly why people do these things, and why there’s nothing to sneer at there. My position stands on two legs: a) I think it’s wise that there be a statute of limitations on how long a memorial can be maintained, especially if it’s on public land; and b) you won’t catch me dead at one, especially for a professional athlete. But if it helps you get over it, fine.

Remember the gas-station owner shot to death last week? He has one. But note, also, this detail:

It’s been six months since a pregnant woman and her three young children died in an accidental fire at their home in the 3400 block of Lane in southwest Detroit. But the cards, Mylar balloons and stuffed animals remain.

Most of the toys are now a ghastly gray, from months of exposure. The 3-foot-high Spider-Man is still visible, as is the Winnie the Pooh. The single-family home has never been boarded up, and its front door is missing. “I want this gone. I really do,” said Robert Santos, who lives down the street and knew the family who died in the blaze sparked by a back porch grill.

It’s not the vacant, derelict house he wants gone — Santos said he’s used to those in the city — but rather the toys left in tribute.

“Every time I go by, I’m reminded of how those children died. There should be some limit on how long this can go on,” Santos said. “I want my wound to close.”

Cemeteries exist for a reason other than protection of public health. Compartmentalization isn’t always a bad thing.

A personal note: Let’s all hold hands and think positive thoughts about Alan’s car, which of late has expectorated — with great, rifle-shot sound effects — two spark plugs (from the same cylinder). We’re hoping the repair on this 12-year-old Subaru will be of the cheap variety and not the $1,800 new cylinder head, because even though we’ve pretty much planned on a new car purchase sometime in 2008, it’s still 2007 and would be a major pain in the ass to swing at the moment. These old Japanese pluggers just keep rolling along; let’s hope this one will roll a few more months.

Speaking of ridiculous expense, my husband has also informed me he wishes to take up sport shooting in the new year, and wants to buy a shotgun. A cool pump-action model like the one on the cop shows, that I can conceal in the folds of my overcoat and use to rob liquor stores? I asked eagerly. No. Some boring over-under Browning from the used market that, properly maintained, will hold its value for many years. Damn. I’ve wanted one of those Remingtons ever since our next-door neighbor in Fort Wayne used his to scare off someone trying to jimmy his front door at 2 a.m. one summer night. “That sound the slide makes when you rack it, it’s like no other,” he said, smiling at the memory of footsteps fading away at high speed.

Well, if nothing else, I want The Back-Up. Ah, not with children in the house. Probably a gun safe and multiple trigger locks.


Roy rounds up the Hillary’s-a-dyke innuendo — this week’s, anyway.

Why are you so awesome, Rudy? Giuliani has a superfan, too.

Sometimes I write the copy for my sister’s eBay auctions, but I can’t touch how people sell shit on Craigslist: For an electric wine-bottle opener (yes, they exist), opens a bottle in seconds, allowing you to spend more time with your guests. Because that’s really a problem at most social gatherings, isn’t it?

Back later, peeps. Still on deadline.

Posted at 10:08 am in Current events, Popculch |

40 responses to “The whole world’s a graveyard.”

  1. Julie Robinson said on November 28, 2007 at 10:23 am

    My Back-Up, leftover from the days when the hubby traveled, is a baseball bat under the bed. Okay, so the only bat we had was a T-ball bat, but still, I’m betting I could do some damage with it providing there was lots of adrenaline fueling me.

    Happily, our neighborhood’s only crime so far has been stealing from parked cars. Even more happily, we have a garage.

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  2. nancy said on November 28, 2007 at 10:25 am

    My Back-Up is Spriggy. I figure anyone who sees him in their flashlight beam will be so disarmed by his scruffy cuteness that they’ll choose another house, lest they be kissed to death.

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  3. 4dbirds said on November 28, 2007 at 10:28 am

    I agree with you Nancy, these memorials exist because we don’t openly grieve anymore. I still remember people wearing black armbands or putting a black wreath up on their door. It reminded others to treat them gently and to acknowledge that they were in pain. That doesn’t exist anymore but people still need to express their sorrow. I never knew what grief was until my sister died two years ago. I’m still amazed at how raw my feelings are and how I can’t really talk about her without shedding tears.

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  4. Jeff said on November 28, 2007 at 10:28 am

    From the FAQ, as alluded to by the blogmistress:

    Children visit regularly. What should I do?

    It is never wise to keep a loaded weapon close to children. Unload your shotgun, put it away and lock it up.

    * * *

    So they have some perspective, anyhow.

    Roadside memorials should have a one year tradition built into them (start telling that to your friends). Folks who mow for the county or live nearby don’t know what to do, and folks who put them up aren’t sure what honors their loss best, either. I’ve interviewed a few families who started with a cross and a candle-lamp, with one stuffed animal, and have been startled by the sudden pile that grows around their tribute. So they may want an end, but aren’t sure if it’s really their call anymore — but they’ll still get furious with a landowner or DOT roadcrew that obliterates the “shrine.”

    They come from a Catholic tradition around the “tinge of sanctity” adhering to a place where a death occured, so a small white cross would be placed. In the Chicago area, you could tell the dangerous curves and blind spots by the cluster of three or four, but they would just be white painted slatwood, renewed by the family every spring.

    There just isn’t a modern body of tradition around today’s remembrances, leaving folks from all angles to this issue hanging, so i say — let’s announce a tradition, and we can even hint that it’s bad luck to leave them up beyond 12 months.

    Let the mythmaking begin!

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  5. LA mary said on November 28, 2007 at 10:48 am

    That electric wine bottle opener is shown with a bunch of bottles of hard liquor. With screw tops. I wonder if they don’t need it because it’s stupid or if they don’t need it because they only drink scotch.
    My back up is a 140 pound boxer great dane mix who adores his family. He would use his cuteness, then his extremely large teeth if necessary.

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  6. Sue said on November 28, 2007 at 11:02 am

    In 2005, in the Town of Trenton, Wisconsin, in the early evening, a car filled with teenagers going 90+ miles an hour hit a car being driven by an elderly man who was bringing his wife home from the doctor. The driver of the speeding car was 16 and had a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. Five people died, including the elderly couple and the driver. Friends of the teenagers set up a memorial the next day consisting of stacked beer cans. Needless to say, outrage from many quarters. Even the father of the boy who was driving said “If you want to have a fitting memorial for my son and the other boys and the older couple who died, don’t drink and drive, and wear your seat belt.”. Sorry, but some things you just don’t do, and working through your own grief process with absolutely no consideration of those around you is one of them. Also, has anyone noticed any memorial cars? I’ve seen a few of them around, where they paint the car hood or something with a memorial to a friend. Also some memorial bumper stickers. Maybe it’s just a local thing.

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  7. alex said on November 28, 2007 at 11:06 am

    My first exposure to roadside memorials was in Santa Fe many years ago, long before I’d ever seen any such thing in the midwest. They were all over the friggin’ place. And the newspapers there ran obits not only for new deaths but on the anniversaries of deaths. (Now there’s an idea for Fort Wayne newspapers in their efforts to remain solvent.)

    As Jeff points out, this is a Catholic tradition, and apparently a very strong one among Hispanics in the southwest.

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  8. John C said on November 28, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Jeff … “they come from a Catholic tradition” … huh? I’m not ready to totally disagree with you. But as a highly Catholic-eduacted, albeit all-but-lapsed Catholic, I’ve always felt that the makeshift shrines were decidedely Baptistish. And I’ve spent a lot of time around them, as a former cop and general tragedy reporter. One thing we papists are pretty good at is grieving together.
    I will agree, though, that there very much needs to be a commonly accepted cutoff date. I would put it at less than a year. I recall a run-of-the-mill teenage tragedy here (Not far from NN.C’s place) in which a carfull of youths wrapped their vehicle around a tree on one of those leafy parkways in the middle of a split street (Lochmoor, of you are wondering Nance.) Our local newspaper, shockingly, did a decent story about neighbors wondering when the shrine could be taken down. Keep in mind, these are neighbors who were awakened by a thundering crash, then emerged into the quiet darkness of a spring night to see dead, bloody teenagers scattered across their parkway. I remember one neighbor saying something like: “I’m not trying to be a jerk. But that was one of the worst nights of my life. I’d rather not be reminded of it every morining when I pull out of my driveway.”

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  9. Connie said on November 28, 2007 at 11:13 am

    I drive by a roadside memorial every day on the way to work, and it makes me mad. Why? A 14 yr old was killed when his motor scooter slid on ice into the homeowner’s wire fence. The shape of his body outlined in the wire fence remained for over year. THen the homeowner replaced the wire fence with a brick column and wrought iron fence. All the better to kill drivers on this curve in the road?

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  10. LA mary said on November 28, 2007 at 11:16 am

    Off topic, although the topics are excellent, two disturbing things happened to me last night. Firstly, I noticed that my usually very timely Christmas cactus, is about to bloom. Global warming? Probably not. Probably it’s because I moved it from the northeast side of the house to the southwest side.
    Later in the evening I was getting ready for bed, had the radio on, and who do I hear? Lileks. Hustling some crappy food book. He’s even more annoying when he speaks. He was taking calls on the air, but the show was not live. Otherwise, I might have been tempted.

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  11. nancy said on November 28, 2007 at 11:23 am

    I think, as Alex points out, they come from a Hispanic Catholic tradition, John. Think Day of the Dead, the little altars of personal items, etc. There’s even a name for them, which I can’t recall, but maybe one of our more polyglot commenters will.

    In fact, when I think about it, I believe the first ones I ever saw were for Latino gang members gunned down in the line of duty. From there, they spread like crazy into the culture at large.

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  12. LA mary said on November 28, 2007 at 11:31 am

    I like the back window of the car memorials. The white stick on letters spelling out, “In loving memory of…” whomever on the back window of an SUV.

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  13. Peter said on November 28, 2007 at 11:43 am

    My uncle and his in-laws live on the Dalmatian coast, and they’ve had these memorials for eons – basically, when someone drives off the curve, they mark the spot, as a memorial to the victim and a warning to other drivers. Even so, going around a few hair pin curves where I saw over twenty crosses on the side scared the bejeezus out of me.

    As for Alan’s car – we are the proud owner of a 2000 Subaru, and let me tell you, it runs great, but try to get something fixed – most independent shops won’t touch them, and the dealer has special rates just for you.

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  14. ellen said on November 28, 2007 at 11:52 am

    The memorials are so common here in Texas that the TxDOT has established guidelines:

    The Texas Department of Transportation wants roadside memorials to promote safety – not add to the dangers of driving.

    With that in mind, the department has issued guidelines for the placement of markers along state highways. These include:

    •Markers should be no more than 30 inches high or 18 inches wide.

    •They should be placed at the outside boundary of the right of way, preferably close to a utility pole or some other no-mow area.

    •”Overly ornate” shrines should be avoided, since they could distract motorists.

    •Engraved plaques are permitted. They may include the victim’s name, date of birth and date of death. They cannot state that the death was the result of someone’s driving while intoxicated without written proof of a DWI conviction.

    •Markers should not be placed in front of developed property without the owner’s written permission.

    •Markers should be made of wood, with no concrete footing. The guidelines include a sample sketch and construction plans for a cross, although “various types of symbols” are allowed.

    •Markers erected without department approval, in an unsafe location or with a design that does not conform to the guidelines, may be removed after attempts to locate the victim’s family and arrange for a proper replacement.

    Requests to place a marker should be made to TxDOT by, or with written permission from, the victim’s family.

    Call or write to the nearest TxDOT district office for more information, including a copy of the full guidelines.

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  15. Dorothy said on November 28, 2007 at 11:53 am

    In my old neighborhood in South Carolina there was a nice family who had that “In Loving Memory” thing on their truck. I used to think “Did the life insurance policy pay for that beautiful black truck!?” They kept all of their vehicles spotless, and had gorgeous flowers out front of their house.

    BTW I just got back from donating blood. They’re having a drive here on campus today and tomorrow. If you’re in the area Jeff, stop by and donate!!

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  16. Danny said on November 28, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    That electric wine bottle opener is shown with a bunch of bottles of hard liquor. With screw tops. I wonder if they don’t need it because it’s stupid or if they don’t need it because they only drink scotch

    Mary, we just did a trip back east and had the pleasure of sitting next to a pretty funny passenger on the way out. He and my wife were looking through Sky Mall magazine and he said that he and his sister have a running competition to see who can find the stupidest item in Sky Mall. They clip the ads out and mail them to one another.

    They had a blast looking through it.

    Oh, and since you know NY, we ended up driving to Manhattan to celebrate my nephew’s birthday. We got up there late afternoon, did the Staten Island ferry to and fro past Lady Liberty, took the subway to 42nd and ate at Carmines on 44th, were too late for ice skating, but did the Empire State at midnight. Then we drove back to our hotel at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and were in bed by 4:45 AM and were trashed by sleep-deprivation for the next day.

    We would have done it better, but a relative errantly told us it was a 2.5 hour trip each way (try 4 hours). We should have done Amtrak even if it was $700 for three adults and two children. We would have had more time to sightsee and gotten to bed a a more reasonable hour.

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  17. John C said on November 28, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Like I said, I’m not ready to dispute the Catholic influence. And you are probably right. Though I would gingerly call it more of a Latino tradition, if the two can be separated. I grew up among New England Irish Catholics and never saw one. Then I came to the Midwest – not exactly teeming with Catholics, outside the big cities – and saw tons.

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  18. Danny said on November 28, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    In my old neighborhood in South Carolina there was a nice family who had that “In Loving Memory” thing on their truck. I used to think “Did the life insurance policy pay for that beautiful black truck!?” They kept all of their vehicles spotless, and had gorgeous flowers out front of their house.

    Dorothy, I have had that same thought. And I am still waiting for the vehicle that has the “In loving memory…” on one side and the Calvin character pissing on something on the other. Perhaps if I drive up to Riverside…

    Oh, and the latest makeshift memorial I’ve seen was at the local high school where I lap swim. Red plastic cups are inserted into interstices of a chain link fence to spell out something like, “RIP, insert_name, We Love You.”

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  19. Julie Robinson said on November 28, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Danny, if you’re looking for ridiculous gifts and can’t find a Sky Mall, try Walgreens or Linens and Things. My most recent favorite, which I couldn’t locate on their web site, is the Man Groomer. It’s a razor on the end of a three foot pole, for shaving back hair. Priceless.

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  20. LA mary said on November 28, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    On a good day you might get to Philadelphia in 2.5 hours, but not Baltimore. Amtrak is that expensive now? I used to take the train from NY to Philly all the time, but that was in the Jurassic Period.

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  21. Peter said on November 28, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Well, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. That back hair shaver might be the thing to save our marriage.

    Years ago I had a layover in Tokyo and I lost count of all the nose hair trimmers I saw on sale – what’s up with that? When I recounted my travel tale, my older coworker said wait until you’re fifty, then you wish you had bought one.

    He’s right.

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  22. alex said on November 28, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    I’m noticing the same thing, Peter. It stops growing out of your legs and starts coming out your nose. And ears.

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  23. Joe Kobiela said on November 28, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    I wonder how many people have crashed their cars staring at a road side memorial???
    Joe K

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  24. brian stouder said on November 28, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    he said that he and his sister have a running competition to see who can find the stupidest item in Sky Mall.

    this reminded me of a very funny movie called The Dinner Game. It’s a French movie with subtitles, and I caught it on IFC a year or two ago…Pammy wouldn’t watch it because she hates movies with subtitles (although come to think of it, she was as taken by Letters From Iwo Jima as I was…)

    from their synopsis –

    The wealthy editor Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhemitte) and his friends have a competition: every Wednesday, each one of them invites the dumbest jackass he can find for a dinner, where each one of the guests is invited to talk about himself as much as possible. Later, after the guests say goodbye, the group of friends makes fun and elects the more stupid and imbecile guest.

    etc etc –

    if you see it at the video store for a buck, grab it! you’ll love it

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  25. Halloween Jack said on November 28, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    I think that roadside memorials should begin and end at the simple white cross (or star of David, crescent, pagan star, whatever). If someone wants to really make a memorial for someone who died, follow the example of the people on shows like L.A. Ink who go to the time, expense, and pain of having a portrait of the deceased tattooed onto their skin. Now, that’s impressive; dropping a teddy bear that you got at Walgreen’s on the roadside, not so much.

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  26. MichaelG said on November 28, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Here in the Sacto area we have a complete selection of memorials. We have roadside crosses, piles of stuff and the SUV window things cited by Mary. I’ve also seen murals and graffiti. I don’t know about tattoos but then I haven’t looked. Or asked. Nor do I intend to.

    Amtrak seems cheaper here. My 282 mile trips from Sac to Bakersfield run six hours and cost $45 each way for the old folks rate. Sure beats busting my ass down 99 in the fog. There’s already been one 100 car plus pile up this month. The rental car people pick me up at the Amtrak station. The fare for the 94 mile ride between Philly and NYC sounds like a rip off. Could NYC possibly be a more desirable destination than Bakersfield? Amtrak wouldn’t charge a premium on a high demand route, would they? Mileage courtesy

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  27. Danny said on November 28, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Could NYC possibly be a more desirable destination than Bakersfield?

    Exactly. Which is why this is the only possible context in which these two cities could be named in the same sentence.

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  28. Peter said on November 28, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Brian Stouder you are absolute correct! The Dinner Game had me rolling on the floor – especially when the accountant showed pictures of his matchstick creations and had a picture of a matchstick derrick opposite Bo Derek “Derrick – Derek – Derrick -Derek – Derrick – Derek” and the other guy says “what are you doing for dinner tomorrow?”

    I think it’s the same production team that did La Cage Aux Folles, but I could be wrong.

    It’s about the only example I know of something that contradict’s Matt Groening’s hypothesis:

    “Comedies are funny
    Sex is funny
    The French are funny
    Why are French Sex Comedies NEVER funny?”

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  29. joodyb said on November 28, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    makeshift memorial=my band name.

    re day of dead, what nancy said. i just visited Chimayo NM a couple weeks ago. if by any chance i didn’t get the whole shrine thing before, i certainly do now.

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  30. joodyb said on November 28, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    stoopidest item in skymall: the real roses dipt in gold!

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  31. nancy said on November 28, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    A friend of mine used to get one of those on her anniversary every year.

    She’s divorced now.

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  32. joodyb said on November 28, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    my obvious question: how many did she accumulate?

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  33. nancy said on November 28, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    The ritual may have started sometime after the dawn on the marriage, but as I recall she had about half a dozen by the time the big D went down.

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  34. joodyb said on November 28, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    they’re not even cheap on eBay!

    my new band name=dipped in gold

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  35. Connie said on November 28, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    Alex said: I’m noticing the same thing, Peter. It stops growing out of your legs and starts coming out your nose. And ears.

    Must be a guy thing. The problem for us 50ish women is the whiskers. On the chin.

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  36. del said on November 29, 2007 at 12:08 am

    Makeshift memorials dotted the Greek mountain roads when I visited in ’95 — hadn’t really been on my radar in metro Detroit before then. Insofar as they highlight the dangers of cars and roadways there’s a bit of a public benefit . . .

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  37. Velvet Goldmine said on November 29, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I never saw a makeshift memorial until Princess Diana died ten years ago, which of course inspired them in several locations, not just the crash site in Paris.

    It’s funny how practices around death change. I was reading one of the Anne of Green Gables sequels to my daughter the other day and we came across an eccentric character who collected “coffin plates,” which even when this book took place (pre-WWI) was considered old-fashioned, apparently. I wiki’d the practice, and found:

    “Coffin plates are decorative adornments attached to a coffin that can contain various inscriptions like the name and death date of the deceased or a simple terms of endearment….When coffin plates began increasing in popularity, the practice of removing the plates from the coffin before burial became the trend as they were often removed by the loved ones to be kept as mementos of the deceased. This practice peaked in the late 1800s.”

    No real point, other than one wonders if a reference of a makeshift memorial at an accident site a hundred years from now will be part of the culture or will evoke the “WTF?” response I had to the coffin plates.

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  38. nancy said on November 29, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    My mother and her cousins would fight over the crucifix on family coffins. (Nothing nailed down, mind you, but the loose one that laid on top of the lid during the funeral Mass.) I inherited one of them, but for the life of me can’t remember whose it is. Dust to dust…

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  39. Velvet Goldmine said on November 29, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Well, all of the above beats the custom of making death masks or taking death photos. Or attending a church that used as preserved saint for an alter, like this one:

    In the unlikely event that I become a saint, I think I’d rather have a few carnations and a rusting pile of Hello Kitty lunchboxes at the place where I bought the farm than to have people staring at my corpse-in-Lucite between hymns.

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  40. Michael said on November 29, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    I second (or third) the non-Catholic nature of little white crosses by the roadside. Rural east central Indiana is not known for its overwhelming Catholicism. I don’t know its ultimate origins, of course, but by the 80’s we put crosses at the sites of automobile accidents.

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