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Moving Monuments of Mourning

I’m not sure if this is an etiquette matter – in fact I’m sure it’s probably not – but more of a ‘Why do people do this?’ question. It’s probably a very sensitive matter for many people, so I’ll apologise in advance if anyone is hurt or upset.

In Australia, we have a lot of cars with ‘My Family’ stickers.  I think it’s supposed to be a celebration of your family for all the world to see. I don’t know if they’ve made it to the rest of the world yet but if not, rest assured, they probably will.

While I have some issues with these stickers (is it really safe to ‘advertise’ on the back of your car that you’re a single mother with three young daughters? Do we really need to know that you have 4 kids, 2 dogs, 3 cats and 5 budgerigars?) Probably my biggest problem – no, not even a problem, an issue? A concern? Maybe it just bothers me – is the ‘angel’ stickers indicating that one of the children is deceased. See pictures below.

Now I haven’t, thank the Lord and touch every piece of wood I can, lost a child. I realise how devastating and heart-breaking it must be and that the dead child will forever be a part of your family. But, while I know that it’s not all about me, it’s extremely uncomfortable to see these stickers. Yes, another’s bereavement is uncomfortable and most of us would prefer not to be confronted with another person’s grief, but I wonder about the people who put them on their cars. Why do people need to advertise their grief and bereavement? Surely it’s an intensely personal matter. Is it an affirmation of the deceased child’s place in the family? Or “Look at me and feel sorry for me, I have a dead child”?  I can’t get my head around it and would value other e-hellions’ thoughts.   0518-14


We have “family stickers” here in the US, too, although I have never seen an angel one on a car before.  What I have seen are the large, custom-made sticker memorials to a deceased person that takes up the entire back window of a vehicle.    The first time I saw them was when race car driver Dale Earnhardt died in a crash and fans placed large stickers memorializing him on the back windows of their pick-up trucks.

This article in the New York Times discusses the recent phenomenon of grieving friends and family creating custom sticker memorials and placing them on vehicles.  The premise is that society has become more mobile and transient and therefore expressions of grief have also become mobile …as in taking the cemetery to the highways.   It is also seen as a way consumers have become empowered to express their memorials in ways typically reserved for the funeral industry to do.

Would I do it?  No.  I personally think it trivializes a life and death. A vinyl sticker on the back of a windshield is quite impermanent (compared to a granite tombstone).  If letting others know the status of your grieving is important (such as the Victorians did by wearing black clothing or black arm bands), I can see how it serves a purpose but I’m not particularly thrilled at the lack of dignity a vinyl sticker conveys.   Wearing a black arm band at least puts the grief in personal context with people one interacted with on a daily basis whereas a vehicle memorial broadcasts it to a huge audience who has no investment in the mourner or the deceased.  Why would it be important that every driver on the freeway knows that the person in *that* vehicle has recently experienced the death of a loved one?

And there is the issue of public grief lasting only a limited period of time.   You did not wear black forever and there was a specific time frame one wore a black arm band.   Traditionally a year, at most, was the longest one publicly grieved yet if there is a vinyl sticker on the back window, when is the appropriate time to remove it?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Angel May 20, 2014, 4:32 pm

    I don’t like any bumper stickers on my car. Those my family stick figure ones are incredibly tacky! I don’t like advertising anything personal on my car. Why do people need to know if I have kids or not, my political affiliation, or what sports team I like? I do remember putting an American flag decal on my window shortly after 9/11. It remained there for about 10 years. But that to me was a sign of respect for the enormity of the tragedy and it was a tribute to those who lost their lives. To me that wasn’t personal so much as a way to show love for my country. But frankly nobody cares if I have a husband, two kids, a cat, and a goldfish. And grieving is personal. I would wear black for a year if someone close to me died–however I wouldn’t put a vinyl decal on my car window for that. It just seems weird to do that. To me, an American flag symbolizes hope. But a memorial decal–I think it would make people uncomfortable. It sure makes me uncomfortable! If you want to do a tribute to a loved one, plant a tree for them or dedicate a bench or a stone in a local park–don’t drive around with their name on your car 🙁

  • Daphne May 20, 2014, 4:38 pm

    I’ve never been one to display anything about myself on my car. To me it makes even a nice vehicle look sort of tacky, and the various stickers are so difficult to remove after the election for example, or when it comes time to sell the car, or they just get all faded. Also, you just never know–what might seem funny or even just benign to you might be deeply offensive to the guy behind you. So I guess it’s a matter of safety a little bit as well.
    That said, I’ve learned over the years to be a little wary of people who display their grief in an overt way. I think there is a time and a place for mourning, and personally, I’m not comfortable with folks who advertise it.

  • Catvickie May 20, 2014, 6:08 pm

    I have seen those stickers a couple of times, and I thought they were deceased family members because they were always with a regular stick family. I personally would never put that on my car, but to each his own. It gives the person behind you something to look at during a long stop.

    I actually like the zombie family stickers–those are cool. Politcal and religious stuff, not so much.

    And we had a kid who died 10 years ago at a corner I take every day when I go to work–it was decorated every day until about a year ago. They hung bowling pins, Christmas wreaths, flowers, and all kinds of stuff on a small post there. He was 14 and riding in the back with a friend and the friend’s mom was driving. Knowing kids that age, they were probably horsing around and the distracted mom pulled out in front of a sport ute. I did not know any of them, but was surprixed that the spot was decorated for so long a time. Very tragic for all.

  • Jays May 20, 2014, 6:29 pm

    I agree with Freq Flyer. “Who am I to criticize how someone else remembers a deceased loved one?”

    It makes them feel better. It doesn’t affect you. Move on.

    That said, I’m another one who said we’d never have one of those stick-figure families … until DH found the Star Trek ones. They have a GORN. (He had to be a Gorn.) 🙂

  • Jill May 20, 2014, 7:31 pm

    I know this will get lost in the sea of comments, but still, this is deeply personal to me. I have lost a child. It was then, and remains, the most devastating thing I have ever experienced. I am not the type to put anything on my car, but if I were, the idea of NOT including my daughter in some way would feel like a betrayal to her. There is no time limit on grief – I will always grieve for her, and she will always be a huge part of our family. Taking off the sticker would not happen; it is certainly not like putting off black clothes after a year, and it would never be appropriate to me to remove it. That doesn’t mean that I’m “stuck” in some arbitrary grieving period, it means that I will always love and remember her while I continue to live my life. And by the way, the idea that grief should only last a year (or whatever), or that public displays of grief should be limited in some way, is archaic and harmful to those who are grieving. I believe in grace and decorum, but I’m just as likely to break down and cry in public now as I was when my daughter died, and that’s okay.

    This sticker is not an advertisement of grief, it’s an inclusion of the lost child in the family. I would never seek to make anyone uncomfortable, but that inclusion and what it means to our family trumps your discomfort. You need only look away to ease your discomfort, while our sorrow is a permanent part of our lives. I feel that both the OP and Admin are misunderstanding the motivation here. If there is ever a representation of our family, our daughter must be a part of it (and in fact, I tend to seek out ways to include her in our family, although it’s never enough). It’s not about our grief or our need to share it with a mostly unrelated public, but rather a profound need to acknowledge her place with us.

    It’s a shame that the reaction to the realization that someone has lost a child is personal discomfort. It is often taboo to talk about or acknowledge the death of a child, which marginalizes bereaved parents. It’s not wrong to feel the discomfort – thinking of a child dying is horrific. It is, in my opinion, wrong to judge anything a family might do to deal with that loss (within reason, of course). But maybe I’m extra sensitive at the moment. Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my daughter’s death, and it hurts now just as much as it did when she died.

    • Tia May 21, 2014, 12:09 am

      I’m so sorry for your loss. Anniversaries are hard. And anyone who thinks a year is “enough time” really doesn’t understand. I hope that today you can spend time with people who loved your child, and that there will be some remembered laughter as well as the tears.

    • Susan May 21, 2014, 5:35 am

      Jill, I am also very sorry to hear of your loss. Thank you for sharing your perspective- we often don’t think beyond our own comfort, but you are right. A family’s need to include a lost loved one is their right and trumps the discomfort of a casual observer. I hope you and your family have a blessed day remembering your girl.

    • SV May 21, 2014, 9:20 am

      Your comment most definitely did not get lost in a sea of others. You perfectly and beautifully articulated the reason behind angel stickers. I am very sorry for your heartbreak.

    • AMC May 21, 2014, 9:23 am

      Thank you so much for sharing your story and perspective; I agree with you entirely. I am very sorry for your loss. I wish you and your family much peace and healing.

      • Deb May 22, 2014, 7:45 am

        Ditto other responses. My heart goes out to you.

  • Robin May 20, 2014, 7:45 pm

    Having two close friends who each lost a baby within hours or days after birth, I can see the validity of the “angel baby.” Without getting into hermeneutics (since we don’t become angels upon death), mothers of dead children live under the socially acceptable pretense that the child never existed. “Yes, we only have one daughter.” “No, we don’t have any children.” These are much more socially appropriate than, “We had another daughter too. She died when she was ten days old.” This makes the questioner so much more uncomfortable than viewing a vinyl sticker. If a parent wants to acknowledge that they had a child and that the child was a valid, and valued, member of the family with a vinyl sticker, so be it. It’s just one more way of saying to the world that this person was loved and important.

  • Rachel May 20, 2014, 9:20 pm

    Putting aside the argument of should a dead child be included in the sticker, the stickers shouldn’t really be used because it gives personal info to strangers that could be used in the event someone wanted to rob your home or kidnap your child. Especially the ones that tell your families names and if you have dogs.

  • Sim May 20, 2014, 9:30 pm

    I have a vampire version of my family (myself and the cat) on the side of my motorbike. I think it’s cute.

    That being said, not a fan of the normal my family stickers. I saw a family with an angel on the back of their car to represent one of the kids. The kid was still alive. I think they misunderstood the angel stickers, because they’d put it on there as the kid was their “little angel”. I didn’t have the heart to explain it to them.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe May 20, 2014, 9:34 pm

    In NYC there are a lot of rear window memorials. I really like seeing them, as it is inspiring to see a testament to people’s love for someone who has died.

  • NostalgicGal May 20, 2014, 11:17 pm

    The memorial stickers are quite common in this area, covering about the size of an outspread hand and usually lower left, or just over the Cyclops light on the back window of the vehicle. The ones that are getting tiring is the ‘let’s get a teeshirt printed up for the whole extended family’ and they are dated about 3-4 years ago and the tees look brand new… to go with the vehicle stickers.

    Corner shrines or roadside crosses/memorials; are outlawed in some places; others I’ve seen maintained for years, and at least one state I’ve visited would put small diamond shaped signs with an X and THINK on them, for fatalities. On the last, it usually designated where there was a stupendous view for tourists to be distracted; and I think they backfired as they drew attention to ‘there’s something definitely worth gawking at here’ (a cluster of 3-4 or more of those signs)

  • Margaret May 21, 2014, 3:53 am

    This reminds me of the circles of grief post from some time ago. The family that has lost a child is at the centre of the circle. The person glimpsing their car briefly is so far out of the circle that she is barely even on the page. Therefore, the family does not have to comfort the random stranger by excluding the uncomfortable acknowledgement of the lost child.

    I won’t get the family stick figures myself, but I have no issue with anyone else getting them. I have never seen the angel ones, but I’m pretty sure my reaction would be to give them a sympathetic and compassionate thought and to be grateful that I have not experienced that loss.

    One of my aunts died within hours of birth. I believe she would have been the youngest in the family if she had lived. I know about her because I am partly named after her so she was always in the list when my mom told me about all the people after whom I was named (Margaret is for X, X and X, next name is for X and X, etc). However, I would be surprised if anyone else in my generation knew about her. Once in a while I have a thought about her, and I’m glad I know she existed.

    I don’t presume at all that someone who represents their deceased child with an angel sticker on their car is doing it for my sake, but I certainly hope it would give them some small measure of comfort to know that someone saw it and knew that their child existed.

  • AngePange May 21, 2014, 6:05 am

    Quite frankly, why do you care so much about what other people put on their cars? I know a lot of people who are “irritated” by these stickers and I just don’t understand that. Whether it’s a deceased person, a living person, a cat, dog or hamster that is represented, is it REALLY such a big issue in your life? I personally wouldn’t put the stickers on my car, but I wouldn’t put a bumper sticker on my car nor would I put a tattoo on my skin (I know people who memorialize loved ones with tattoos). I just don’t see the point in getting upset, irked or even bothered by someone else’s choice in decoration (or how they mourn a loved one).
    You may think large turquoise earrings are tacky and ugly, but does that make it wrong for someone else to wear them? I don’t really understand OP’s big worry with this. I’m of the opinion that, provided you aren’t harming anyone else, how you choose to decorate your body or your vehicle or anything else is your own business.

    • admin May 22, 2014, 1:52 pm

      Could the possibility exist that there are people in this world who really do not want to have every detail of a stranger’s life in plain view like a billboard? I can turn off the TV, radio, Facebook and other media outlets that deliver news and social connections but putting a vinyl sticker memorial on a vehicle puts it before me, literally, in a way I cannot avoid it. And there is this little notion of a thing called “discretion” where we all learn to refrain from expressing our feelings willy nilly so as to avoid inflicting an emotional tsunami on hapless bystanders.

      • kingsrings May 22, 2014, 3:33 pm

        I completely agree with admin. Blurting out your most personal details to strangers won’t gain you any popularity points no matter what your feelings are. Discretion in life is a necessity.

      • Steve May 27, 2014, 12:35 pm

        Agreed. Those huge back window decals *literally* shove another’s grief in your face. That is their entire purpose. It is beyond disingenuous to emblazon such a message across the field of view of another driver ten feet away, and then turn around and claim such practices are “nobody else’s business.”

      • AngePange May 28, 2014, 5:49 am

        I suppose I was just brought up to not sweat the petty stuff. This seems a little petty, especially since the car will most likely turn a corner and drive out of sight eventually. I just feel like people should be more tolerant. Especially to someone mourning the loss of a child.

  • MsCopper May 21, 2014, 6:19 am

    Are the stickers hurting anyone? It’s their car and their grief. Who am I to judge what anyone puts on their vehicle? Look at the stickers or don’t. Doesn’t matter to me. If it makes someone feel a little better why not? I may not like them but I would never ever judge anyone for putting them there. I do love the zombie family stickers though.

  • BMS May 21, 2014, 6:43 am

    The practice I don’t understand (note: I don’t object, but I don’t get it either) is that of getting huge tattoos in the memory of deceased loved ones. I was at an amusement part last week and was in line behind a woman with no less than 6 different large memorial tattoos on her neck, arms, legs, etc. (we were in line a looooong time). Putting aside the etiquette of wearing a top that exposed enough cleavage to drive a minivan into at a family park, it just seemed sort of odd to me. Especially since many of the tattoos couldn’t be seen by the person who was sporting them, it seems that their only point was attention getting. They weren’t attractive tattoos at all, and seemed sort of splashed around at random.

    I guess I’ll never be much of a public grief person. I have lost many people in my life, but other than the funeral, I’ve never been one to make a big show of my grief in public. It’s just not me.

  • S May 21, 2014, 2:07 pm

    I always thought the cars with the memorial sticklers were bought with money from the will of the loved ones. Sailing on the Chesapeake bay is a sailboat named after someones Aunt that is money given in her will was used to buy the boat.

  • delislice May 21, 2014, 5:44 pm

    It’s taken me reading all the comments to work this out, but I think I can put a finger on one reason that some of the posters find rear-window memorials a little off-putting.

    Numerous references have been made to Victorian mourning practices, including wearing black; wearing a black armband; and having memorial jewelry made that included a lock of the deceased’s hair.

    Here’s a thing: the “hair brooch” was meant to be a discreet, private memory for the individual … it was usually made up in such a way that only the wearer knew that there was hair involved, or — if they could tell — whose hair it was.

    The black clothing or black armband? Those were seen only by people one passed or encountered face to face, which tended to be a relatively small group. In an individual encounter (for example, a shop transaction) or a group encounter (riding in an omnibus carriage), the mourning wear signaled that the person wearing it was in a fragile position, might be understandably distracted, and was certainly not to be approached in a lighthearted or everyday fashion.

    That’s why there were customs: the mourner typically wore all black and no jewelry for the first year, then entered “second mourning,” adding subdued colors such as dove gray and pale lavender for another year. At the end of two years, normal clothing was resumed — not because it didn’t still hurt, but because it was expected that *other people* would have moved on enough.

    The mourner no doubt still mourned; but custom and group behavior no longer required other people to tacitly participate in the mourning.

    The memorial window stickers, which drivers display even to people they will never encounter face to face, removes a key element of the structures of Victorian mourning: how others treated the mourner.

    The black or subdued clothing was worn to signal others that the person should not be approached too casually. But memorial stickers are sending that signal to whole groups of people who will likely never approach the mourner at all.

    Maybe that’s behind some of our discomfort at the memorial stickers. People who need to know that someone is “mourning … handle with care” WILL know. And there’s less need to share that information with people who are unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with the mourner.

    • Steve May 27, 2014, 12:32 pm

      Traditional mourning wear imposed an obligation on others–to “handle with care,” as you’ve pointed out.

      I think these rolling tombstones are designed to do exactly the same thing. There’s a distasteful odor of attention-grabbing about them.

  • crella May 21, 2014, 6:55 pm

    It’s being confronted by stranger’s grief; someone who I will never speak to personally, never know, never have any kind of contact with other than that sticker, and yes, it’s uncomfortable. I wouldn’t walk around town wearing a T-shirt or hat that said ‘My mother died’, nor would I announce to each person who passed me, ‘I lost my mother’…that’s what these stickers do. ‘I lost my child’ to all and sundry at a red light, in a mall parking lot. The driver can’t see the stickers themselves, they are for other drivers to see. I don’t see how it helps with grieving at all. What it does succeed in doing is casting a small shadow on someone else’s day, on top of whatever else is happening in their day, including losses of their own. The issue here is not fear of death or not wanting to think about it, but being confronted by the public grief of someone you don’t know. You can’t do a thing for them.

    • Jill May 22, 2014, 12:55 am

      Just because you don’t see how it helps with someone’s grieving process doesn’t mean that it doesn’t help. It’s not about announcing a death. It’s a desire to participate in a cultural activity while including the child in the family. I also wouldn’t wear a t-shirt that said “my daugher died,” but that’s not the same at all. It’s more similar to me wanting to include her in conversations about my children. Leaving her out of a representation of my family would, to me, be like telling someone that I only have one child instead of two – it feels like a betrayal.

      • ALM May 22, 2014, 12:45 pm

        What exactly is the value of this ‘cultural activity’?

        It’s bragging about your offspring. By including an ‘angel child sticker’ into this tacky display, what exactly are you bragging about.

        The regular display is tacky. Adding in the morbid aspects is much more so.

      • crella May 22, 2014, 7:28 pm

        It is confronting strangers with your grief, whether it’s on a shirt of the back of your car.

        I am an introvert and very private with my personal news etc. It’s jolting to see these ‘announcements’ of others’ grief many times in the course of a day as I go about my business. A high school girl in my old home town was killed in an accident and suddenly there were hundreds of cars in the area with spray-painted memorials and/or stickers. What does it do? Were I a family member I would be taken aback by the constant reminders everywhere I looked. So much better to actually write a note to the family, or bring them a meal instead of paint it on your car.

        Why must potentially hundreds of strangers share in anyone’s grief? We all have our own…I’ve lost three family members in the past 7 years and have one more terminally ill right now. What would putting it on my car do?

        • admin May 23, 2014, 7:25 am

          Good point. Why not write the death date on the calendar and when the anniversary rolls around in the subsequent years, write a note to the spouse/parents/siblings that you remember the deceased and haven’t forgotten? I cannot begin to tell you how significant and appreciated this is to know someone other than yourself remembers.

  • LizaJane May 22, 2014, 8:10 am

    Ok, I’ve read every post. The only sticker I have on my car is a “No whining” one. Here’s what it comes down to for me: it’s my car, I own it and unless I’m inciting violence or the like, I’ll put what I please on it.

    • Steve May 27, 2014, 12:30 pm

      And when I see what you’ve put there on public display, I’ll judge it as I please.

  • ChicaLola May 22, 2014, 2:00 pm

    They will always be a parent to that child. If they are showing off their family on the back of their car with stickers, why wouldn’t they include the child they lost? You can see this and move on. If you allow it to affect you, that’s your problem. Why is it such a big deal?

  • BagLady May 23, 2014, 3:54 am

    Car stickers are a form of self-expression. Key word: self. They are a way of telling the world what the car owner thinks/believes/feels/enjoys/cares about. The world is under no obligation to respond, react, comment or care.

    I’ve seen a lot of stick figure family decals, but I’ve never seen an angel child one. If I did, on a stranger’s car, I might think briefly, “Oh, how sad, they lost a child.” And that would be it. I wouldn’t think for a minute that the decal was their way of asking for acknowledgment of their loss from random strangers who see their car. It’s their way of honoring their lost child’s memory. Same with the “in memoriam” stickers that take up the entire rear window. Or memorial tattoos.

    If I were in the process of getting acquainted with someone, I might inquire about the decal or tattoo: “So who was Travis?” But I would never think for a second that their memorial decal or tattoo was broadcasting, “Ask me about my lost loved one/shower me with sympathy because I lost a loved one.” Unless it actually said that, and they don’t.

  • Eileen May 23, 2014, 8:46 pm

    I think it is their car, and it is a mystery to me why people put them on there, but it’s their business.

    I do wonder though about the “tombstone” information (name, dates, loving ________ for instance) – what do you do when you sell the car? I would feel bad about just scraping it off I think.

  • Mabel June 1, 2014, 8:35 am

    I only put stickers on the back windshield. Then I can easily remove them if they get raggedy or if I get bored with them.

    Although I do agree that it might not be a good idea to let everyone know your private life (the number of kids, pets, etc.), it’s their car–if they want to put a memorial sticker on it, it’s no skin off my nose. I have no right to criticize them for it.

    Stop worrying about how it makes YOU feel all the time. Maybe think about how THEY feel.