On The Road Again

Jan 15, 2016
On The Road Again I remember, during the earliest years of my career, my boss returning from a funeral and saying the cortege had passed the scene of a serious road accident involving a motorcyclist. By tragic coincidence, some days later we were engaged to arrange the motorcyclist’s funeral. He was only in his 30’s and his wife brought one of those teddy bears you buy in greetings card shops to put in his coffin. She then asked for the message on the teddy bear to be engraved onto the coffin nameplate under her husband’s name. He had an unusual name and I can vividly remember engraving the inscription. I’ll use a fake name here of course, but the plate read: ‘Kurt Linder Olson – I love you sooooo much’.  

But the thing that’s really stuck in my mind all these years is how the scene of the accident was later marked by a small wooden cross tucked in the verge. For me as a young trainee it was peculiarly fascinating to see that little cross and know that I’d handled the body of the person who’d died there.   

That was the late 1980’s and roadside memorials weren’t anywhere near as prolific as they are now. They’ve not only become commonplace but are sometimes quite elaborate and even lead to requests for permanent tributes. Inevitably they’ve become a contentious issue, particularly when local authorities come under fire for trying to remove flowers and tributes without the prior knowledge of the families involved.   

Families bereaved through road accidents naturally have a desire to place flowers or memorial items at the crash site and the act of doing so can of course be an important part of the grieving process. Not only that, but such memorials can also be said to act as a warning to road users of the possible dangers of the location. But on the downside, these memorials can equally create a distraction hazard for passing motorists. The actual placing and visiting of such memorials often involves a road safety risk to those who create them and there might even be insurance and liability issues in the event of an accident occurring as a result of a driver being distracted. 

So perhaps it can only be a good thing that the police and local authorities are now developing specific policies towards roadside tributes. Police Family Liaison Officers will often escort families on visits to crash sites, not only because they can then ensure the visitors’ safety but also because it’s now recognised that just being at the place where a loved one died can be an important part of the grieving process.   

Meanwhile, for local authorities there is undoubtedly a value in having a policy in place. There’s apparently no express provision within the Highways Act 1980 to license or permit memorials on the highway, but there is undoubtedly the potential for detrimental effects on road safety. On a more prosaic, but still equally important level, there’s also an impact on the ability to carry out highway maintenance. How many of us drivers moan when we approach junctions only to find our field of vision obscured by uncut foliage or long grass on the verge? Agreed, no local authority is qualified to judge when grieving should end and when floral tributes or commemorative items should be removed; but they are qualified to know when for reasons of road safety or road maintenance the presence of a roadside memorial site is becoming a problem.  

Maybe the answer is to adopt the French example of the black silhouettes erected by local authorities. Limited to being erected for a month, they’re intended as a cautionary measure to other road users. Designed by a French artist whose son was killed, the silhouettes are black, life-size and disfigured by a red, lightning-shaped gash across the face. The current English equivalent is the white painted ‘ghost bike’, used to signify the death of a cyclist.  

Ironically though, the very people who might in theory best benefit from the visual reminder of roadside memorials are usually driving too fast to see them, so the underlying message of “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” is lost anyway.  

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos. www.fredstevens.co.uk   

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director” www.amazon.co.uk

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