Monday, October 15, 2007

Monuments and Invisibility

A friend of mine writing a book on the Battle of Quebec of 1759 went this past weekend to revisit the Plains of Abraham and found himself standing, in the rain, on the exact spot where General Montecalm had been mortally wounded over two centuries ago. My friend watched a footrace currently in progress and the runners finished 5 meters from this historic spot, whose significance seemed completely forgotten in the excitement of the race. I got to thinking about casual passersby encountering physical monuments scattered about the world from Boston to Barcelona, Quebec to Ireland, Greece to Jerusalem ... plain concrete markers on modern sidewalks next to a bank or park or pub, brass plaques on the side of a commercial building, signs posted to indicate the location of someone's demise. People walk by them every day, maybe stop and lean against them, even deposit their soda cans there. Monuments to important historical moments amidst the urban sprawl.

There are markers for victims of violence and tragic traffic accidents and bombing events, temporary drop-off points where people can express their grief and outrage, deposit flowers, leave written messages. Public markers to commemorate the passage from Life to Death, besides commemorating a specific event, also remind us that whether we're important or invisible, the Grim Reaper gets us all eventually.

My grandmother gave birth to ten children; seven survived. One day I climbed the hill on the side of a mountain to the old church cemetery to look at their graves: my grandmother, grandfather and the three dead infants who never made it. The stones were so faded with age I could not make out the dates. What do tombstones usually say: Here Lies So and So. Born (gives date), Died (gives date). People even do this sometimes for beloved pets. Cemetery markers celebrate a person's entire lifespan, not just one event.

What got me thinking of death markers (because that's what they are, markers commemorating someone's last day on earth) was all the millions of people who die every year who are not accorded this respectful remembrance, like flood and earthquake victims or mass casualties from a war. Bloodstains on a sidewalk can be washed away; memories of one's last heroic or horrific end cannot. They will return, again and again, to inspire--or haunt--those of us who remain.

To all the Invisibles, for whom no physical marker exists, may you be remembered, for as long as possible, in this fickle and war-torn world.

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