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The vexed question of memorials… and an alternative suggestion

Matthew Chatfield
Latest posts by Matthew Chatfield (see all)

Roadside memorials… it’s a complicated subject which causes some awkward conflicts of interest. In summary, bereaved relatives want to have a memorial to their loved one at the place they died: but not everyone else does. It’s quite hard to tell that to a mourning family and so it’s often left to ‘the authorities’ to do so. In most, if not all, cases, those authorities which have made rules seem to have found other excuses for them – health and safety, usually. But let’s be frank – a soggy teddy isn’t that dangerous. People just don’t want everywhere to look like a graveyard. That’s why we have special places for graves and memorials. If everywhere someone died was commemorated with a shrine within a decade or so there would not be anywhere left unadorned. If everywhere is special then it ends up with nowhere being special. It is only because most people choose not to commemorate their loss this way that we can presently allow those who wish to do so to erect memorials. But it isn’t fair for them to assume this indulgence is a right or even a duty.

A typical roadside memorial in West Sussex recently, looking a bit faded. Is this always a suitable commemoration for a tragic loss?

There are some who’d like to support the establishment of more memorials. The UK charity RoadPeace says:

Shrines are a visible and poignant focus of grief for families and friends of victims. Importantly, they also provide a unique and effective warning to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists of the dangers that exist on even the most unremarkable of streets. However, flowers wither and die and road users have no lasting reminder of the dangers at the location. Brigitte Chaudhry, National Secretary of RoadPeace, said: “We would like to see the ‘Remember Me’ sign erected automatically wherever someone is killed or seriously injured in a road crash – to highlight the scale, remember victims and prevent future tragedies.”

Campaigning charity BRAKE goes further:

Bereaved families should have the default right to lay flowers or other small items at any time… …grass cutting staff should be advised to lift the items with care and then replace them once the grass underneath has been cut. [Complaints] should result in a period of mediation between the member of the public and the bereaved family… This mediation should take the form of phone calls or meetings, not impersonal letters, which should always be undertaken by a trained bereavement officer, and not by… a highways officer.

They also go on draw parallels between roadside shrines and war memorials, and the permanent memorial erected after the Kings Cross disaster. It’s clear what side of this debate BRAKE is on. The Ranger would be interested to know if local authorities have actually adopted policies anything close to this aspiration. Whilst one can strongly sympathise with the idea, it seems pretty impractical and costly, and fails to address the basic issue – unlike war memorials, these are monuments to private, not public, grief, so if people don’t want to look at such memorials, should they be obliged to? This is an issue away from the roadside and in the countryside too -and there may be a useful lesson to be learnt about one way to tackle it. Many people want to leave memorials to loved ones in the countryside, and similar issues arise to the roadside debate. The Ranger is variously responsible for many hundreds of memorial trees and benches across the Isle of Wight. Most are entirely satisfactory, and there’s no need for ‘a trained bereavement officer’ to deal with the bereaved families who The Ranger’s colleagues regularly deal with. However the issue of the impact on the landscape is an important one, both visually and in wildlife terms.

Bench on West High Down

Tennyson Down on the Isle of Wight is a spectacular landscape, utterly smooth and green and with stunning views. Apart from the eponymous memorial there is nothing to break the stark beauty of this hillside… except one municipal memorial bench. Sometimes a memorial is just in the wrong place. This one’s been there for decades so it’s almost become a feature in itself. But what if everyone wanted one? Doubtless the National Trust (who manage the site) are constantly offered memorial benches for this iconic site, and obviously they quite rightly have decided that one is enough. But what is the alternative? Surely a mourning family intent on donation shouldn’t just be turned away? Of course not – and there is a very good alternative. Look at this:

Gate in memory of Brian Evans

Kissing gate in memory of Brian Evans

We don’t usually need any more benches, and we don’t need any more trees – we can’t even manage the ones we’ve got. Why don’t we follow the example (above) of Wight Nature Fund at their Alverstone Mead nature reserve, who ask for memorials to be things of use. The wording is large, and visible from a long way off – and yet nobody would suggest that this memorial was in any way obtrusive or inappropriate. It’s right next to the road, too, as it happens. The solid and useful gate is surely a more fitting and long-lasting memorial to anyone than a faded bunch of plastic flowers taped to a lamp-post?

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

2 thoughts on “The vexed question of memorials… and an alternative suggestion

  • I applaud Tracy’s sensitivity but I am sorry that I will not be able to be an adult and follow suit. She is absolutely correct about the graveyard being an appropriate memorial, infinitely more so than a roadside water logged teddy bear or frost burned wreath.

    I have threatened my loved ones with fierce haunting should they ever put up a road memorial where I (God-forbid) should crash my car or some other poor soul accidentally kills me. I do not want my lasting memorial to be, ” Oh yeah, that’s where he got killed.” I guess, for me, those sites don’t represent a place to grieve and remember so much as they represent a stupid mistake, and thus show less respect rather than more for the dead.

    Donated memorials, especially ones as practical and useful as mentioned at the end of the post are respectful. However, In the US the memorial makers have taken “memorials” too far. You will see cars with memorial phrases written on the back window – “In Memory Of…”, with dates of birth and death. Instead of having to go the cemetery or remembering just what highway that roadside memorial was on you can drive it around with you.

  • This very sensitive issue deserves some discussion. There is already a system set up for commemorating someone’s death that has been used successfully for hundreds of years – the graveyard. Bereaved families seem to need some public demonstration of their grief so why can’t they pay their respects and leave flowers in the cemetery? Surely this last peaceful resting place of their loved one is a better place for quiet contemplation than a busy, dangerous roadside. And why not give the money that they would have spent on teddies to charity.


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