February 25, 2001
9:58 AM   Subscribe

Three months after Chris Kempa was struck and killed by a truck, the city of Livonia, Mich., has ordered his family and friends to stop memorializing him at the site (from Kempa.Com, run by his older brother Adam).
posted by rcade (22 comments total)
All due sympathy to Adam and family, the city has a responsibility to other drivers and other pedestrians to which they are giving scant respect. It's a public right-of-way which has all sorts of other rules, such as signage, vegetation growth, and garbage accumulation. And I'm afraid that it doesn't take long for one of these tributes to become a small accumulation of garbage. Even cemeteries have rules about tributes left at gravesites and maintenance personnel who regularly pick it all up.

I just don't think this is an appropriate location for a tribute. It's not even exactly where the accident occurred -- presumably that's somewhere out in the street -- and if it's going to be 20 feet away, why not in a more appropriate place?

Again, I have nothing but sympathy for the family involved, and I'm sensitive to the fact this is someone whose site people here have been reading for a long time, but there's a larger trend here that's been nagging at me for some time.

There certainly wasn't a practice of shrines like this when I was a kid, just 20 years ago. It has really sprung up mainly in the last decade. Perhaps it had regional roots that I don't know about that stretch back longer. It's a subculture of individual hagiography that I don't understand.

We saw this with Columbine, we have an entire museum devoted to just 100-odd people in Oklahoma City, and now there are roadside tributes sprouting up all over the south to a race-car driver who wasn't anywhere near there when he died.

In my hometown there was a National Guard unit that was activated in 1941 and sent to the Philippines. There they were captured by the Japanese and sent on the cruel Bataan Death March. Ninety-nine of them did not reach the POW camp; they were walked to death. Those 99 were memorialized by a simple traditional plaque placed on a four-foot-high marble memorial topped by a bronze tank. Today, it seems, they'd be memorialized by an entire museum, and the President would come speak, and all the stuff that people left in their memory, no matter how ephemeral, would be part of the museum. I don't see that as a memorial to the people who died; I see that as an indulgence of a culture of grief.

Frankly, it's a bit creepy.

I wonder what Kubler-Ross would say.
posted by dhartung at 1:13 PM on February 25, 2001

Yeah... I dunno if the city was right in ordering it all to be removed, but really... what's the point of memorializing someone's death by dumping off a bunch of stuffed animals on a streetcorner? Donate to a charity in his name, plant a tree somewhere... and what if the wind picked up? This stuff would be blown into the street.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:34 PM on February 25, 2001

I can respect their right to grieve, but I'm not sure if sustaining a distraction to other motorists is the answer. Dhartung is right, this is a memorial to a culture of grief, not the poor kid.
posted by xtrmntr at 3:14 PM on February 25, 2001

I see no problem up to a certain point. Putting wreaths on the street corner, small momentos, candles, etc... are all valid and I don't think there is any reason to demand them removed. If the memorial starts to take over the street corner, then it's a different story. A man was killed here a while back in a motorcycle crash, and people did the same thing. It eventually got out of hand with cousins of friends of friends being on the street corner at all hours, people spraypainting "RIP" messages all over the road and sidewalk, and flowers littering the entire block. At that point, enough is enough for the sake of the people that live there.
posted by tomorama at 3:14 PM on February 25, 2001

What's wrong with grieving over a friend, or a son, that has died traumatically?

Anyway, the mother said she asked if one flower could be planted at the site, and that request was denied as well. The picture of the site shows some flowers and dolls. I don't understand the analogy being drawn between that and a museum. And the kids in the photo keeping up the memorial hardly seem the sort to be spraypainting R.I.P. on the lawn.

As far as giving scant respect to the city, I think its the other way around. The memorial (if we leave flowers at a grave do we call it a memorial?) didn't seem all that distracting to me. It sounds like a lame excuse to remove something out of the ordinary that the town didn't have an ordinance for.

As for the Columbine museum, sometimes people have a special need to grieve when death cannot be rationalized and understood within a greater context. We all understand why the soldiers died in WWII, but it may not be so easy for the parents of the Columbine kids to understand why their children died.

Really what I don't get is what is the big deal? She just wanted a flower or two at the streetcorner where her kid died.
posted by xammerboy at 7:58 PM on February 25, 2001

what's the point of memorializing someone's death by dumping off a bunch of stuffed animals on a streetcorner? Donate to a charity in his name, plant a tree somewhere...

With all due respect, I'm not sure why you think it is appropriate for you to determine how others should mourn.

Memorials like this are created in many parts of the world, not just the US. Whether there is a "culture of grief" (whatever that means) or not, there certainly seems to be a "culture of insensitivity and carelessness about others' losses" in this thread.
posted by locombia at 8:00 PM on February 25, 2001

All who lose have the right to grieve...privately. No one enjoys a right to inflict extravagant and intrusive demonstrations of their grief upon ME. I'm sorry for your loss, but we all suffer them, and if you choose to dwell unhealthily upon yours, please do so in the privacy of your own home and heart.

Now, must we enforce this to its extreme all the time, in every case? Of course not. Personally, I have no problem with someone's temporarily marking the site of an accident to note the tragedy (though such an impulse doesn't make much sense to me). But the key word here is "temporarily." Public property should not be appropriated for exclusionary or proprietary individual use.
posted by rushmc at 8:14 PM on February 25, 2001

now we see the results of too many lawyers and the collapse of community in the US.

I am truly saddened by your angry and selfish attitude.
posted by locombia at 8:20 PM on February 25, 2001

locombia, I believe you're reading things into what people have said.

In fact, I would agree that the "collapse" (I would say decline or dispersal) of community in America is part of this. In the past there were well-defined public rituals regarding grief: a memorial service, a funeral procession, a cemetery. Participation in these rituals allowed people to grieve publicly ... one could say move forward while they still felt numb ... and then recede into private mourning. For whatever reason, the decline in importance of those rituals has affected how we deal with death.

I don't think there's anything ambiguous about the phrase "culture of grief". My link was to an article about the elaborate rituals of mourning used by Victorians, from how long you were supposed to wear certain articles of clothing to when you could attend what social function to the whole modern casket. I could as easily have linked to a site discussing Egyptian mummification and the pervasiveness of the afterlife in that culture. This is a remarkable change from attitudes of just a generation ago. Perhaps part of it is related to the shrinking size of the average family, or extended lifespans, so that each death seems greater in context and the person lost seems to have been cheated out of more life.

In any case, this activity is no longer private when it takes place on a public right-of-way. It is no longer private when there are safety issues. When it is no longer private, it is open to discussion and criticism. When hundreds if not thousands of other people are forced to accomodate a new grief practice, I do not feel out of place in questioning who is being selfish. Would you agree that a memorial in the middle of the street would be inappropriate? Then you agree there should be limits and that the boundary is open to debate.
posted by dhartung at 9:00 PM on February 25, 2001

When it is no longer private, it is open to discussion and criticism.

I never said that it shouldn't be discussed.

I am merely saying that anyone who can not accept a small, temporary, public memorial (that is not in the middle of the street or whatever) such as the one under discussion is terribly insensitive and selfish.

What's the big deal? If it bothers you so much, just ignore it.
posted by locombia at 9:13 PM on February 25, 2001

Isn't this small memorial exactly the kind of public gesture that would allow this mother to then recede into private grief? And is it not small enough, and inconspicuous enough, to be legal (and I'm not sure that it isn't)? After all, she isn't building a pyramid, going into mourning for years, or having a parade. Not that that wouldn't be legitimate either. Think New Orleans.

Furthermore, isn't grieving healthy? Why is it an "indulgence"? Why is it so unhealthy or intrusive? After all, death is a part of life. If indulging the "culture of mourning" means acknowledging death in a small public way then I see that as being a healthy recognition on the community level.

Although the article doesn't say, I would imagine that this memorial came about spontantaneously, probably the kids friends trying to do something that would make them feel better. And then their town said - that's not okay, we don't allow that kind of behavior here.

kinda sad.
posted by xammerboy at 10:03 PM on February 25, 2001

I see this from two angles:

1) For someone who has lost a child on the road, some kind of memorial there is reasonable and appropriate. The Japanese (used to, and may still) create small roadside shrines to memorialize children who died. At least as depicted in the film My Neighbor Totoro, they can have a little roof (to shield passersby from the rain), and/or sometimes a statue of some kind.

2) In a public area, piles of flowers and stuffed animals do not, alas, fall into the category of "reasonable and appropriate" as they essentially become trash after awhile. While it would not be appropriate for public officials to ban every possible kind of memorial or dictate taste, there is some kind of middle ground of compromise where the family and friends could be encouraged to create a memorial that would not create a public nuisance.

What about a religious or other symbol with a plaque? The family could choose something that was important to him in his life. I've seen many crosses by the road here in Texas, and they don't seem obtrusive or bothersome to anyone.

What about a bench with a plaque? This would have the advantage of giving mourners a place to sit and contemplate his memory.

The plaque could have a picture of the boy who died, and maybe contact info for the memorial fund for anyone who felt the urge to give something.

Just my ideas on this... I think there's just gotta be a better way, to allow a public display to honor the boy and those who loved him while at the same time not creating a distracting and unsightly pile of trash by the roadway.

posted by beth at 9:49 AM on February 26, 2001

As a resident of Livonia, I am pretty aware of the circumstances surrounding this controversy, so I figured I'd try to shed some light on the whole thing. Many of Chris Kempa's friends are not old enough to drive and visit his gravesite (an "appropriate" place for a memorial). The accident occured just a few blocks away from the school that Chris and all of his friends attended. Because of this, the memorial was created as a place for the friends of Chris to leave messages, memento's for him, or just to be with others while mourning. I have to imagine the counselors of the high school felt this was a good way for the traumatized kids to deal with their grief in a publicly acceptable way.

And in response to the fears that the memorial would become too large and start to be an eyesore, Mrs. Kempa routinely cleaned up the site, gathered and washed the various stuffed animals and donated them to charity. This site wasn't going to become a garbage dump of deflated balloons and ratty stuffed animals. In fact, the site was slowly getting scaled down by the Kempa's themselves. The only reason it was continuing to stay as large as it was, was because of Chris' friends. They flat out told Mrs. Kempa that they weren't ready for the site to be gone, and that they didn't think she should take it down.

I can understand how many people unfamiliar with this specific example could side with the city on this issue. I have seen my share of unkept roadside memorials. But this memorial was set up to help the community cope with the loss of a child. This wasn't a selfish act in the slightest.

posted by JFunk2800 at 9:50 AM on February 26, 2001

Nevertheless, there are other ways for the kids to cope with the loss of their friend, some three months past. There are other ways for the family to cope. They need to channel their grief elsewhere; just as I couldn't sit all night long in the funeral home next to my father's coffin (though I wanted to) they cannot continue to leave their momentos of remembrance in this public place.

"I can't see how it was a distraction. That's crazy." is what the mother said. She's not seeing things clearly. Besides, whether or not it was a distraction is moot; it isn't private property, it isn't for the Kempas or the schoolkids to do with as they please. That's just the way it goes. Life continues; they need to move on.
posted by Dreama at 11:11 AM on February 26, 2001

I think it's clear that we can't really know the specifics of this situation from the one article. Certainly, no one here thinks that the city should go around squashing memorials at its whim. If that's what's happened here, I think we would all agree that that's inappropriate.

As to the larger issue, I think most of us would agree that, at some point, the city has the right to step in and protect the health and safety of all of its citizens. Whether in this particular instance the city's actions were appropriate, I can't say (and to take JFunk's word for it, it seems they weren't). But we're all going back and forth here, and I don't think we need to.
posted by jpoulos at 11:11 AM on February 26, 2001

There are better photos of the memorial on the Feb. 16 entry at Kempa.Com.

It seems to me that the city officials should have accepted the placement of a single flower at the scene as a compromise, at least for the short term. Roadside crosses appear all over the place in Florida, and I can't recall any official effort to remove them.
posted by rcade at 11:56 AM on February 26, 2001

The Japanese (used to, and may still) create small roadside shrines to memorialize children who died.

Guess maybe we're Japanese down here in Florida too. :-)

In my county, [someone] puts up little round, white, non-reflectorised signs on 3 foot posts saying something like "In memory of [name]. Drive Safely".

They inspire curiosity, I think, from people who *don't* know what they're for, and pause, in those who do.
posted by baylink at 2:27 PM on February 26, 2001

As to the larger issue, I think most of us would agree that, at some point, the city has the right to step in and protect the health and safety of all of its citizens.

The time for the city to do that was before Chris Kempa was killed.

Fuck the authorities. Let them go after the mother and see where that concern for public safety gets them.
posted by holgate at 2:49 PM on February 26, 2001

I've seen many crosses by the road here in Texas, and they don't seem obtrusive or bothersome to anyone.

Actually, I find them quite obtrusive, offensive, and inappropriate, and not just in Texas.
posted by rushmc at 10:17 AM on February 27, 2001

The time for the city to do that was before Chris Kempa was killed.

What more should the city have done? They've created a speed limit for the streets, and the intersection (presumably) has either a two or four way stop mandated. Short of posting a police officer there 24/7/365 what further steps could the city have taken to prevent this accident?

Government entities can (and should) only do so much, and regardless, there will still be accidents. And in this case, the city has a responsibility to act to the best of its ability to minimise the chances of another accident in that location, and that means minimising unnecessary distractions to the motorists who use that intersection.

Fuck the authorities. Let them go after the mother and see where that concern for public safety gets them.

I don't see acting in the interest of public safety as "going after" the mother or anyone else. But clearly it will be construed that way in a lot of irrational, emotional outbursts. As Shakespeare once said, all full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
posted by Dreama at 11:35 AM on February 27, 2001

As Shakespeare once said, all full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Except that bit of Macbeth deals, blackly, with the way that death chokes meaning from life's achievements: "a tale told by an idiot." But Macbeth was alone: there was no-one to remember him.

Too right it's about irrational emotion. Let's see if the city of Livonia removes every "distracting" advertising billboard from the roadside, Ah, but that's different, isn't it?
posted by holgate at 2:41 PM on February 27, 2001

Yes, I believe it is. For the most part, billboards are generally located on private property, not public. In cases where they ARE located on public property, such utilization should certainly be subject to public review and approval, via a direct vote, an elected representative's consideration, or some other such mechanism. If they bother enough people enough, they should come down. But I would certainly maintain my right to utilize my personal property in such a fashion if I so choose, however tacky, garish, or tasteless that might make me.
posted by rushmc at 12:16 PM on February 28, 2001

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