Newtown struggles with when to remove makeshift memorials
The recent school massacre in Connecticut revives a key question: When do public displays of sorrow and sympathy become barriers to moving on, especially for the victims’ families who drive past them?
The New York Times
NEWTOWN, Conn. — At least five children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School played at a gymnastics center called the Tumble Jungle. So, soon after the shootings, a staff member brought a bedsheet from her house, painted the words “Our Angels, Never Forgotten” on it and draped it over the sign in the front window.
It was one of dozens of such heartfelt memorials that appeared on roadsides, in yards and on storefronts in the days after the shootings. Today, the bedsheet remains, rippling in the wind like a flag of mourning, which in every sense it is.
“We lost so many kids close to us,” said Brandy Nezvesky, 18, manager of Tumble Jungle. “It’s going to be a big decision for all of us to take it down.”
Newtown remains a town suffocating in grief after the Dec. 14 massacre that killed 20 first-graders and six adult staff members. Now, it is wrestling with what to do with all those well-meaning memorials. The sheet in front of the Tumble Jungle remains; others have disappeared, some swept up by the town in the middle of the night. It is a daunting question: When do public displays of sorrow and sympathy become barriers to moving on, especially for the victims’ families who drive past them?
The town has been so inundated with these and other acts of sympathy that at one point officials implored people to stop sending gifts of toys and other goods and instead give them to their own charities in the name of the Sandy Hook victims.
“That’s what happens in disasters like this, especially on a scale like this,” said John Eastwood, pastor of Calvary Chapel in nearby Southbury, who was a chaplain with the Red Cross at Ground Zero after 9/11. Church members have been operating a heated tent on a vacant lot down the road from the school where people can drop off tributes, talk to a chaplain or wander among the mounds of teddy bears, flowers, prayer cards and posters signed by schoolchildren and well-wishers from across the country and the world.
“That’s one of the primary needs of these temporary memorials,” Eastwood said. “People need to release some of that grief, and it becomes a safe place instead of turning into a complicated grief.”
The question of how long is too long to let these temporary memorials stand has become familiar in places such as Columbine, Colo., Virginia Tech and, more recently, Aurora, Colo., where gunmen have gone on deadly rampages.
Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s first selectwoman, made the decision for many herself when she ordered the Public Works Department two weeks after the shooting to remove many of the most elaborate memorials. To be removed were the vast gardens of grief — including rows of decorated Christmas trees topped with silken angels, green-and-white balloons (the school’s colors), sacrificial candles and personal items such as old dolls and sports trophies — that had accumulated outside the firehouse near the school and in the center of Sandy Hook.
Before doing so, Llodra alerted members of the community by phone, warning them of the pending removal. Organic material such as flowers and trees, she told them, would be processed into “sacred soil” to use in the foundation of a future memorial. The teddy bears and all the other nonorganic items would be turned into bricks and other building materials for the tribute.
Llodra also wrote a letter to the victims’ families inviting them to spend private time at the sites and to take any items they wished.
Police closed the roads around the memorials Dec. 28 for two hours as about 50 people from 15 families took her up on the offer.
That night, after most of the town had gone to bed, employees from the Public Works Department collected all the material, placed it in containers and took it to the department’s warehouse.
Some have criticized the move as too soon and the decision to turn the material into something unrecognizable like soil or bricks. But others have praised it.
Cathy Sullivan, a widow and longtime resident, broke the homeowners’ rules of her retirement community when she put up a white teddy bear, an American flag and green-and-white balloons on a tree in her front yard. She has yet to take it all down, but said that having a place to take it, and knowing it will be put into a permanent memorial, made the decision easier.
“I couldn’t put it in the trash any more than I could put the flag I received when my husband, who was a veteran, died,” she said. “So I’m going to roll up the balloons and the ribbons and the teddy bear and the flag and take them all down to the town.”
On the Friday of the shooting, a family that has lived just blocks from the school for 60 years, spray-painted, “God Bless the Families” on two slabs of plywood and put them in its yard. The family, which did not want to be identified, built a large green heart out of plywood ringed with Christmas lights and decked it with 26 crosses, the name of a victim on each. The family has not decided when to take it down, or what to do with it.
“We were just talking about that the other day,” said one of the brothers. “If one of the families came by and asked us to take it down, we’d take it down in a heartbeat, but otherwise it’s just something we’re going to have to think about.”