Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Question of Memorials

At our last council meeting, a bylaw was proposed that would limit the time that an informal memorial on city property can be kept, to three months. These are the memorials to those who have died at accident sites - they seem to be getting more prevalent these days. Until now, Prince Albert has had no policy to deal with these.

The matter has been put off for discussion until mid-August, after someone directly involved with one of these sites asked for the opportunity to have some input. In her specific case, items at a memorial site had been removed after a complaint to the city from an area resident, without any discussion with the family.

This is an extremely difficult matter; one on which I'm not sure that there is a single right answer, and one to which I've given a great deal of thought.

For one thing, I'm not sure how big a problem this is on a city-wide basis. Obviously, if someone is tragically killed in front of your home, and friends and family of the individual leave things as an informal memorial site, it may be a problem for you, but I'm not sure that it's a large enough problem to pass a bylaw about, and I don't think that we should be using bylaws to try to control people's behaviour. We certainly have a few behavioural bylaws (littering, spitting) that aren't effective.

Are these situations fortunately few enough that they could be resolved simply by direct discussion between the affected parties?

If we do need a bylaw, what is magical about the three-month timeline proposed? If the site is a distraction to passing drivers, then it is a distraction from day one, not just after three months. Is three months sufficient time for grieving? Is a year? I'm quite sure that for family and friends, it isn't. For the parents in particular, the grief is something that will always be with them.

Is such a site useful for reminding both young and old about their mortality? Perhaps giving people second thoughts about reckless behaviours is a benefit of such sites.

Some of the comments on the local paper's web-site have suggested that such memorials are inappropriate - that's what cemeteries are for. I'm not sure that there's a right time or place for remembering the loss of a loved one. Perhaps that's been encouraged in the past, but I think that today's society is more open about grieving, and I think that such an open attitude is much healthier. I'm sure that the family's and friends' memories won't end with the removal of the memorial - the memories will be with them constantly. My wife has had two co-workers die on Highway 11 - memorial site or not, she never goes to Saskatoon without thinking of them.

When I was in school, I remember cases of class-mates dying suddenly - there was never any discussion about these deaths and the effect on the rest of the kids in school. In one case, the student's desk was removed and the classroom rearranged so that her absence wouldn't be noticed. It was almost as if we were to forget that she ever existed, which can't have been a comfort to her family at all. When I compare that to the way a local school acted when a classmate of my son's died suddenly a few years ago - open discussion, encouraging the other children to talk about their memories, giving them time to grieve - I think that it's a big improvement in attitude, in recognizing that it's far better for friends and family to be able to do this openly, rather than "get over it".

So how do we balance the wishes of family and friends, and those of people in the neighbourhood who would rather not have the reminder of a tragic accident on their street?

No matter what the decision, I think that it's only respectful to inform families when dismantling such a memorial is being considered - give them the opportunity to remove items, and have some closure at a site of what has to be a source of incredible pain.

As I said, this is a difficult topic, and one that isn't easy for people to talk about. I'd be interested in your thoughts, and I hope that this item will receive thoughtful and respectful discussion when it returns to council.

"Grief teaches the steadiest mind to waver." - Sophocles

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