A couple of weeks ago the Vancouver Sun reported that Coquitlam was considering a review of their park bench program that allows residents to donate a bench in memory of a loved one. The title of the story was “Some Metro Vancouver cities doing away with dour ‘In Memoriam’ park benches“. You may recall that we donated a bench in memory of our sons as well in a spot that had meaning for us so that the headline caught my attention.
Apart from the fact that the number of people who complained seemed extremely low and the response hence very much exaggerated, the article otherwise perfectly fit the theme of “death-avoiding society”. As always the few comments on the article and some of the opinions expressed were more shocking than the article itself. I completely disagree with the idea that seeing a memorial plaque, even if it is written in cemetery style wording, leads to a depressing situation. A park assistant was quoted with “We want people, when they’re sitting on a bench, to have a nice uplifting experience and not a depressing one“. I sometimes think only people who haven’t experienced loss in any form yet can see it this way.
I wonder if these people switch the channel as well when ads for non-profit organizations, e.g. to save starving children, are shown on TV. After all, one might be watching television for entertainment and not to get depressed with all the issues humanity faces in the world, such as hunger, war, illness and so on. Why don’t we ban all sad stories entirely from the news as well? If one does not hear about the issues, maybe it will solve itself. Maybe one does not even need to die if the topic of death is avoided at all costs. Wouldn’t that be something?
What does a memorial bench symbolize? In my opinion it stands for love and care. Someone died which obviously is sad, but at the same time a person is lovingly remembered. Would it not be a lot more depressing to live in a world where someone dies and nobody cares and instead we all forget and just move on to focus on the superficial happiness that gets celebrated? To me these benches are places of happiness, even though I might be sad and cry when sitting on the bench. It is a place where I can enjoy the view – which indeed is spectacular – and take time to remember. Sometimes life is so busy that we just rush through the day without taking a break. Being at the bench gives me that break of uninterrupted freedom to spent time with my dead children. Don’t get me wrong, I always think of them, but there is a difference of pushing everything else entirely away and just being with them at the bench.
We spent a lot of time at our bench, although sadly not during the past few months which hopefully will change again soon. We used to walk along the beach and all the other benches. The reality is that an amazing amount of people actually look at every bench and read all the plaques. When we are at the bench to plant or water the flowers many people comment and thank us for making the bench look so nice and a welcoming place for everyone to enjoy. People enjoy sitting on the bench, despite the plaque. Our plaque does not give much away though of the devastating story behind it, but sometimes conversations actually come up at the bench with perfect strangers.
There was a couple from Britain who stayed in the hostel around the corner. They asked us about Marlon and Tobias and we told them what had happened. Were they getting depressed from our story? I don’t think so. They were shocked to hear about the death of our children, who wouldn’t. But they said they would come back the next day and sit on our bench again to enjoy the view. And maybe they thought of their own children or someone they lost after knowing the story that the plaque hints at. Maybe they even shed a tear or did think of entirely different things. We will never know. What we do know though is that the bench led to this interaction and that these random two strangers now know about our children. Maybe, just maybe, instead of getting depressed they might have actually valued the opportunity to enjoy the view even more when they were reminded how fragile and precious life is.
Shortly after the release of the original article an editorial was published which I quote here: “Remembrance is a way of acknowledging the miraculous gift of life and of keeping alive – in both individual hearts and collective family and community memory – an echo of the lives, once so important, that have since closed. […] The phenomenon celebrates the idea of life embodying service, of duty to one’s fellow citizens and to humanity at large, by providing a memorial that serves as a cost-free public amenity. And the memorial bench passively invites us to remember – we can say passively because a modest, non-intrusive bronze plaque leaves each of us free to read or not to read the memorial as we choose. […] Worse, some indulge the Orwellian political correctness of pre-approved lists of appropriately bland platitudes for memorials, as though death might be airbrushed from awareness. They should stop and rethink what they propose and what it says about free expression in a democracy. […] These memorials, humble and elevated, literary and plain-spoken, enrich public spaces rather than impoverish them. They give us pause for thought. They speak to us across time. They aren’t unpleasant or morbid distractions. They don’t turn parks into cemeteries any more than public art turns them into museums. They prompt us, rather, to ponder the loving people in our own fleeting lives as well as those who were once incandescent parts of other lives. Such memories don’t deserve to be erased, bowdlerized, downsized, decommissioned or refashioned as empty bureaucratic bromides. They deserve to be honoured.” Well said.