The poignancy of funerary displays


For generations, those who mourn the passing of others have tried in some public displays to honor the memory of the departed. The practice goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who constructed monuments similar to those seen in cemeteries today. The markers erected all fall under the umbrella of what has come to be known as funerary art.

Nowadays, such poignant displays to honor the passing of someone can be seen far beyond the boundaries of cemeteries. Certainly, one of the more widely seen funerary displays occurs when we see the flag lowered to half-staff, when the nation as a whole acknowledges a death or deaths.

As for the displays I routinely see while driving, there are those displays off the sides of highways where loved ones died in crashes. While the standard components of such displays are flowers, often artificial, and a cross, there sometimes are other items far more personal, such as stuffed animals or that Ohio State metal block “O” you may occasionally pass as I do while going north on I-75 just before the Breese Road exit.

The personal items remind me of something I once read about the Chippewa tribe. When a child died, a doll was made from the hair of the deceased, and the doll was carried around by the mother for a full year to display her grief.

One of the more moving examples of funerary art I’ve seen was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I’m often inspecting my Mid-American Cleaning Contractor accounts. While paused at a light, I took note of a softball field, and in the middle of the diamond on the mound I saw a chair with flowers strewn around the mound. When the light changed, I turned right and then into a parking lot. I then walked up for a closer look.

On the chair, I saw a framed photo of a fresh-faced young lady in her softball uniform adopting her fiercest face. She was staring straight ahead, as if looking for a catcher’s sign.

Despite not knowing her, I reacted as I think many of you would have, with tears forming in the corners of my eyes. While some are given decade after decade to atone for manifold mistakes and become a better version of him or herself, there are also those like the kiddo in that photo who are gone so very long before a future could even be envisioned.

Of all the poignant displays I’ve seen, there’s one that stands out, one from a history book, one taken from one of the chapters outlining man’s inhumanity to man. While on an abroad trip in Central Europe, a trip that gave Lady Jane and me a look at five different countries almost 5,000 miles from our Buckeye homelands, we came across a sculpt in Budapest, Hungary, on the east side of the Danube, the river that divides the city and once upon a time divided two cities, Pest to the east and Buda to the west.

The memorial artwork is entitled Shoes on the Danube Bank, and it comes with the saddest of stories. Budapest, now a thriving city of some 1.7 million, is a part of a long history of occupied persecution dating all the way back to the 13th century when the Mongols first invaded Hungary.

Much of the persecution of more recent vintage took place after the Nazi invasion in 1944, with Jews being the main target. In addition to those in the Jewish community that were sent off to death camps, others were massacred by a Hungarian Fascist militia called the Arrow Cross Party, a far-right group explicitly modeled after the Nazi Party.

Thousands were taken from the Arrow Cross-mandated zone called the Budapest Ghetto, marched down to the river, ordered to take off their shoes and relinquish what few valuables they may have had, and then shot. The bodies were then thrown into the river. The shoes could then be sold by militia members.

The memorial shows a long line of shoes of all kinds — some children’s, some women’s, some men’s — depicted as they were when they were ordered removed, at various angles and directions, some on their sides. Completing the sculpture is a long stone bench behind the long strand of footwear with plaques that read, “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.” In places there were votive candles and flowers left by those whose connection to the artwork was far more personal than to Jane or me.

Jane and I did sit on that stone bench that chilly March day back in 2015 and pondered the depths of men’s propensity for cruelty to his fellow man.

Yes, there are indeed those pieces of funerary art located far beyond the walls and fences of cemeteries, displays that can elicit some profound feelings and, perhaps, salve ever so slightly the sorrow that comes with death.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].

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