Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Roadside Memorial - Supernaturally Gruesome

“On a dark desert highway…” as the Eagles' song goes. You can picture such an accident in a remote locale, but it actually occurred at a reasonable well-lit city intersection. I wrote this in the summer a few months ago, watching the Atlantic Ocean on a peaceful day, far removed from the grisly accident scene. So far from such pain.

Near the Philadelphia International Airport is the intersection of Lindbergh Boulevard and 84th Street  - a highly trafficked area. When I lived near there, I used to pass through the intersection daily on my way to work. For about a dozen years, there was a large roadside shrine of stuffed animals and the like, indicating a life lost on this roadway, I assumed. The memorial was removed sometime in 2022. 

I had stopped to photograph it a few times, in various seasons, in various years. The stuffed teddy bears and other characters would get water-logged and beaten down by the elements, and I noticed that these would be replaced with fresh ones from time to time. Sometimes, balloons were added. Usually such markers of urban mourning have some sort of document posted in its midst indicating the person whose life was lost. This memorial never had one that I ever saw.

Some years ago I had some of my photographs in a group show with other artists in Philadelphia, and as is customary, the gallery held an opening reception. Artists show up to discuss their work, potential customers show up to see the work and meet the artists. I think I had two photographs in the show, but I don’t remember what they were – although they probably had something to do with death (were I to guess).

My daughter Juli is an abstract painter and has told me that customers are more drawn to the artist’s story, than to the art work itself. She advised me to have a good story. You would think I was a reasonably good storyteller after all these "Cemetery Traveler" blog posts that I’ve done, and books that I’ve written. Maybe so, but I’m not a good on-the-spot salesperson. I prefer to let my work speak for itself. Sometimes that works, sometimes not.

One of the artists in attendance that evening was, however, a very good storyteller. He wasn’t trying to sell me his work, we were just passing the time talking to each other about our work. He told me a story that made my skin crawl.

When he found out that I explored and photographed cemeteries, he offered me this story. Turned out that HE was the person who kept that roadside memorial alive all those years! It has been about eight years since he told me this, so I’m a bit hazy on the details. I will recount it to the best of my recollection.

The storyteller was the uncle of the subject of the memorial. About ten years prior to his retelling of the story, his niece and three other seventeen and eighteen year-olds were going to a graduation party. The niece, lets call her Caitlin, had a younger brother, about four years old. The teens had begged the parents to let them drive to another graduation party and the parents let her take the car. It was raining that night.

As they approached the intersection at Lindbergh Boulevard and 84th Street, someone ran the light at high speed – probably forty or so miles per hour. The teens’ car was broadsided by a truck, I think, and I believe some of the teens survived. The storyteller’s niece did not.

He was asked to identify the body in the morgue at some point. I imagine her parents asked him to do that. He told me that she was cut in half, head to foot, right down the middle. A grisly scene to witness. Can you imagine the horror? 

At some point, maybe the next day, the girl’s younger brother was asking when Caitlin would be coming home. No one knew how to break the news to him. He told his parents he was talking to her in a dream he had the previous night. He was not upset. She told him she was alright. But the thing he was most puzzled about was the vertical line she had coming down her face, all the way down her body ….