Flowers, candles, cuddly toys and in some cases even an actual headstone. Nearly every day we see them at the side of the road somewhere. They are small memorials that mark the scene of a fatal traffic accident. Mirjam Klaassens conducted research into places where the dead are remembered, including these roadside memorials. By marking the location, bereaved relatives and friends can visibly express the unacceptable tragedy of a young life cut short on the road. This act can make it somewhat easier to come to terms with.’ Klaassens will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 17 November.
Roadside memorials are not a new phenomenon. Klaassens: ‘As far as I can ascertain, they started to appear about fifteen years ago, but I can’t be certain about that. The spontaneous memorials in particular are very ephemeral, which makes it difficult to trace them so far back. They are appearing more and more often after traffic accidents involving young people.
Almost three-quarters of roadside memorials commemorate traffic accident victims aged 25 or younger – which is striking, since the number of victims in this age group accounts for about one-third of the total number of accident victims. Klaassens: ‘The death of these young people is seen as unacceptable because it involves the “wrong” generation.’ This reinforces the need for the bereaved to communicate the loss and anger to other road users. Roadside memorials are thus becoming part of a new mourning ritual.
Klaassens distinguishes between two types of roadside memorial: spontaneous memorials and permanent memorials. ‘Not only do they look different, they are also placed by different people and serve different purposes.’ Spontaneous roadside memorials are usually placed soon after an accident by friends and classmates. ‘Within less than an hour the messages, candles and flowers start to appear. This type of memorial is very ephemeral. It seems that young people need a place to gather, to come to terms with the fact of the loss and understand how it could have happened.’ In most cases, parents’ memorials follow later. ‘They don’t usually visit the scene of the accident until a few days later. Following the initial period with flowers, cuddly toys and candles, the parents are faced with the decision of whether to place something permanent, ‘Usually with the thought that they don’t want their child to be forgotten. This is very evident in the memorials themselves. Memorials of this type carry much more information about the deceased than spontaneous memorials. They show names and the dates of birth and death, for example. The important thing for parents is to show that their child lost its life at this location.’
The main reason for placing a roadside monument is to commemorate the victims and ensure they are not forgotten. Klaassens: ‘The bereaved notice that memorials also serve as a warning to other road users. Although they are aware of this, it is not the reason for placing the roadside memorial. It is more of an added bonus.’ The bereaved also derive comfort from the fact that others are mourning with them. ‘A mother I spoke to said that someone had laid fresh flowers by the memorial. That proved to her that her child has not been forgotten.’
A roadside memorial only has significance if it is located at the actual place where the person died, Klaassens discovered. ‘In most cases, the bereaved see the location not only as the place where someone died, but also as the place where he or she was last alive. For some people it even has a spiritual significance.’ It is therefore important that the memorial is placed precisely where the victim died. ‘Even if someone didn’t actually die until after they’d made it to hospital – in that case it marks the place where the person was his or her true self for the last time.’
This also means that the locations for roadside memorials are not prescribed. Many memorials are placed without a licence or permit, which means that they are illegal. Klaassens: ‘They are usually tolerated. Some unlicensed roadside memorials have been in place for as long as three years. And then there’s the question of who should remove them. I can imagine that you wouldn’t want to impose that emotional burden on an official, especially since many young people die relatively close to home. The official in question might know the family personally.’
In 2004, guidelines were drawn up by the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. But it is not always clear what is or is not allowed. Furthermore, regulations differ from place to place. Klaassens: ‘It is a difficult decision for the bereaved to remove the memorial they have placed for a loved one, even if they visit it far less often than in the beginning. In many cases, people are given a three-year or five-year licence. But what happens after that? It seems sensible to me to discuss this with the bereaved when the period has ended. If the memorial has already served its purpose, a new ritual can be arranged with the highways authority, namely the removal of the memorial. This may help the family take the next step towards closure.’
Mirjam Klaassens (Drachten, 1980) studied Demography at the University of Groningen. She also carried out her PhD research at the University of Groningen, in the Department of Cultural Geography, Faculty of Spatial Sciences. She will be awarded a PhD in the Spatial Sciences, under the supervision of Prof. P.P.P. Huigen and Dr P.D. Groots. The title of her thesis is ‘Final Places: Geographies of death and remembrance in the Netherlands.’ Klaassens is currently working as a postdoc at the Department of Demography, University of Groningen.
Mirjam Klaassens, tel. +31 (0)50 363 5956, e-mail: m.klaassens rug.nl
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