FLINT - It was a small article tucked deep inside my favorite newspaper, and it made me wonder what's wrong with this world.
The headline read, "Private memorials not allowed on state land." The article beneath it was short enough to run here in its entirety:
"Michigan is cracking down on use of state land for private memorials. People sometimes place crosses, mementos and other items on public property in forests or near roads or trails. They're often near the site of an auto crash or a favorite hunting spot.
"Lori Burford of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment said the memorials can distract motorists. They also take public property for private use.
The department's Forest Management Division said it will dismantle memorials that aren't removed by the people who left them."
And, of course, they are in the right to do so. Public land is public land. This is one case where the grossly overused slippery slope argument has some merit. If the state lets individuals erect private memorials on public land, what's to stop anyone else - even whacko groups - putting them up, too?
And Lori Burford is absolutely right. They are a distraction for motorists because I'm a motorist and I'm distracted by them. The longer and lonelier the drive, the more I think about the memorials I see along the highway.
I wonder whose son or daughter or husband or friend died on that spot and what happened. I marvel at the power of the grief that would drive someone to build a memorial complete with cross, seasonal decorations and photographs along a distant stretch of freeway in the north woods, miles from anywhere, even an exit.
I wonder: Are most of them put up in the first tidal wave of grief and thereafter abandoned? I see plenty that are like that. I wonder if those the ones with faded plastic flowers ultimately become albatrosses of guilt around the necks of the living: I put it up but I can't maintain it. What kind of a person am I?
Then again, maybe they aren't intended to be ever-lasting gobstoppers of grief. Maybe they're meant to be momentary bursts of emotion, like tears at a funeral.
Although I doubt it. My dad died at a roadside drive-in restaurant. Seventeen years later I still ache when I drive past it. If it weren't private property, I'd build a memorial there. And I'm the type who would maintain it for a lifetime. To me, where someone dies matters somehow.
I suspect some of these roadside memorials are intended as warnings. I, at least, take them that way. There are certain stretches of I-75 trailing north that have an unusual number of memorials. I always slow down, even if the road doesn't seem particularly treacherous.
If the state and its ever-so-correct bureaucrats are looking for an excuse to leave those poor shrines alone, maybe that's it. They're a caution sign saying slow down, don't drink and drive, be careful. They make you pause momentarily in our rush through life and think.
How many things these days do that?
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.