Private Grief, Public Mourning: The Rise of the Roadside Shrine in BC
November 4, 2013
Review By Ben Bradley
Typically involving a cross and some flowers, the roadside memorials located along British Columbia’s highways catch the passing motorist’s attention and instantly raise a series of questions about death and mourning. Who died there? How long ago and under what circumstances? Who set up the memorial? Do they continue to visit it? These questions are usually forgotten when the demands of driving snap the motorist back to attention, but John Belshaw and Diane Purvey recognize roadside death memorials as a phenomenon deserving closer scrutiny. Private Grief, Public Mourning examines why they have become so common in British Columbia over the past fifteen or twenty years, and it seeks to contextualize them within the province’s social history.
The book is divided into four chapters. The first discusses the diverse forms of public reaction to death in British Columbia from the colonial period up to the early 1920s. Not only was British Columbia a site of confluence for many cultures but its early history also coincided with important changes in Western attitudes towards death and mourning. Death was increasingly mediated by doctors, hospitals, and undertakers; cemeteries were pushed to the edge of town, away from everyday life. Mourning lost much of its personal meaning and went from being a private to a semi-public affair. However, in a society as divided as turn-of-the-century British Columbia, the use of public space for mourning was usually limited to elite- and state-sanctioned events, punctuated by occasional outpourings of popular sentiment. Many examples are drawn on to illustrate these trends, including the changing deathscapes of Kamloops, Victoria, and Cumberland, and the mourning and memorialization of Robert Dunsmuir, Ginger Goodwin, Pauline Johnson, Joe Fortes, and the fallen of the First World War.
Chapter 2 outlines the global context of spontaneously built shrines and memorials. Chapter 3 presents photographs and findings from a survey of nearly fifty roadside memorials on Vancouver Island and between Kamloops and Prince Rupert. Here memorials are examined as material culture, with commonalities and differences suggesting underlying attitudes towards mourning and memory. Common features include the use of crosses, identifying the deceased by name, and the placement of wreaths, flowers, notes, and photos. Teens and young adults (especially males) are often memorialized as children, with stuffed animals and toys, while other memorials use beer cans and liquor bottles to express a “rough” masculinity. The authors point out stylistic flourishes that assert the deceased’s individuality, while also detecting a general trend towards permanence, with memorial-builders using more durable materials and even setting memorials in poured concrete bases. Noting that British Columbia’s traffic fatality rates have declined considerably since the 1970s, Belshaw and Purvey suggest that the recent rise of the roadside memorial can be interpreted as an attempt to make meaning out of a form of death that seems meaningless. Friends and family are able to show that the deceased was someone who mattered and is remembered but without making claims to respectability according to established social or religious conventions.
The final chapter considers British Columbia’s roadside death memorials as examples of modern mourning, particularly in the context of religion, secularism, and the media. It argues that, while roadside memorials and the attitudes towards mourning that they express predate the death of Princess Diana in 1995, they were powerfully validated by media coverage of that event. People have subsequently become more willing to claim public space for displays of mourning, and government agencies have learned to tread carefully when dealing with them. In a sense, the roadside death memorial has made a transition from vernacular to popular culture over the past fifteen years. More “nuts and bolts” information about the roadside as public space could have been helpful here. For example, what are British Columbia’s regulations about signs in highway right-of-ways? Might the rise of the roadside memorial be connected to a lack of uniform standards in highway maintenance since those services were privatized in the 1980s?
By Chapter 4, a significant chronological gap is apparent. Chapter 1 covers up to the 1920s, and Chapter 3 reaches back to the 1970s, but it was during the intervening half-century that British Columbia developed a modern road network and culture of automobility. This was when British Columbians became familiar with the roadside as a communicative space and with death-by-automobile as a seemingly inevitable cost of “progress.” More discussion of driving, death, and mourning in the period between 1920 and 1970 would have strengthened Belshaw and Purvey’s linkage of roadside memorials to British Columbia’s earlier history. This is a minor shortcoming, however. Private Grief, Public Mourning is an important contribution to the study of vernacular and popular culture in British Columbia. It provides an insightful, sensitive, yet rigorous treatment of a delicate topic. Historians, geographers, and anthropologists of British Columbia will want to have this book on their shelves, and its images, accessible prose, and familiar topic also make it of interest to a broader, non-academic audience.