Private Grief, Public Mourning: The Rise of the Roadside Shrine in B.C.
John Steinbeck said, “It seems good to mark and to remember for a little while the place where a man died.” And if a shrine on the side of the road pays homage to an individual who has passed away unexpectedly even traumatically, then Belshaw and Purvey’s book Private Grief, Public Mourning pays homage to humanity’s desire to properly mark and remember their grief over deceased loved ones. Although devoted predominantly to images and depictions of roadside shrines in British Columbia, Belshaw and Purvey’s theme is devoted to exploring the historical and cultural significance of grief and how it has manifested itself in popular society, pointing out that, “The roadside shrine is one more thread in the tapestry of public exhibitions of grief.”
The book covers the significance of burial and cremation ceremonies as well as the racism that ran rampant in early BC, which was perhaps most evidenced in communities partaking in death rituals. Not necessarily a new phenomenon, the authors discovered that “evidence from Catholic cultures and Orthodox Greece suggests roadside shrines existed within very old Western traditions which predate automobile cultures.” In fact, they explore the variety of religious beliefs that were held in BC and how those beliefs directly lead to people looking to build shrines and monuments outside of the cemeteries and churches to celebrate their grief– sometimes due to the fact that they weren’t permitted to demonstrate it outside of traditionally accepted methods. However, the authors point out that in BC, it was certainly the rise of automobile culture that led to an increase in informal shrines–some celebrating reckless behaviour (drunk/reckless driving) and inadvertently tying the victim and perpetrator together in immortality. Through the course of this book, it’s interesting to note that while some shrines are put up as a temporary sign of grief and mourning to celebrate the unexpected demise of a loved one, some of these shrines end up becoming permanent fixtures. With vivid images of a variety of different shrines and monuments built across BC, this book helps to delve into the human emotion of grief and why taking it into a public space can provide such comfort to one mourning individual and such discomfort to others. (Sara Ritchie)
by John Belshaw and Diane Purvey, $20153 pgs., Anvil Press, P.O. Box 3008, Main Post Office, Vancouver, B.C. V683X5, anvilpress.com