Friday, April 14, 2017

The Shrine in a Time of Science

A story in the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend caught my attention for a number of reasons. 

It reported on the conviction of a young man in the car-crash death in 2013 of his girlfriend, and as a father, I feel very deeply for any parent faced with the death of a child. 

Second, I was once a work acquaintance of the man, Marco Gauthier-Carriere, convicted of criminal negligence causing the death of Valerie Charbonneau. 

I will say only that I while I didn’t know Marco that well, I did like him and while I don't disagree with the verdict, I'm sure he had no intention that Valerie should die as a result of his actions - but negligence is the crime that deals with catastrophic sins of omission like what happened that night in November, 2013.  

Valerie Charbonneau.

I never met Valerie, but I remember Marco speaking fondly about her at least once, and I'm certain that he was devastated that his own actions caused the death of a long-time girlfriend that, I believe, he intended to marry. 

Third, it seems like an absurd length of time for this matter to reach trial. Three-and-a-half years is nearly one-sixth of the lifespan of both Marco and Valerie, who were both 21 at the time of the accident (they had been high-school sweethearts).  

For the family of the victim, not to mention that of the accused, to have to wait so long for a verdict seems almost like justice denied; the Supreme Court of Canada believes this too, which is why all levels of government are currently in a panic right now, trying to figure out this whole speedy-trial business after several accused murderers were released after their cases were stayed for taking too long to reach trial. 

Sometime ago, I completed an essay speculating on the reasons why over the last few decades, criminal cases have taken not only a long time to get to court, but also take much longer to try than was the case in the past. I may post it one day. 

Another reason this accident stuck out in my mind, is that at one time, I travelled daily on the stretch of road in East Ottawa where Valerie Charbonneau met her end.  

It occurred just where Montreal Road heading east makes a fairly sudden turn before coming to the intersection at Blair Road. 

Marco apparently lost control at this curve, jumped the median, and crashed into a concrete light-standard on the opposite side of the road, which crushed the roof inside the passenger cabin. 

As it happens, this was right outside the campus of the National Research Council of Canada

Since not long after the accident, a roadside-shrine dedicated to Valerie Charbonneau's memory has been placed on the chain-link fence separating the NRC from Montreal Road. 

I noticed driving by one day, that the supports for the black metallic NRC sign, do for a brief moment provide a frame upon the shrine itself, which consists in turn of flowers, trinkets, toys and even a tabernacle affixed to the chain-links, wherein is placed a photograph of the deceased young woman. 

After seeing this numerous times passing by, a couple of years ago I stopped, got out and took cellphone pictures of the shrine. 

Shrine to Valerie Charbonneau at National Research Council, Ottawa

Image of Valerie in tabernacle

Teddies and trinkets left by friends and family of Valerie

I've been struck by the fact that the name of an institution devoted to scientific investigation is juxtaposed by happenstance with an artefact — the shrine — with deep roots in religiosity. 

Shrines are common to most religions, it would seem, from pagan to monotheistic, and probably preceded civilization by many eons. 

Indeed, shrines may have even been the locality around which settled life took form: the temple complex at Gobekli Tepe, in modern-day Turkey, was apparently started eleven-and-a-half thousand years ago, centuries before there is any evidence of farming in that region or anywhere else. 

As shrines endure, walls and roofs are built to protect the venerated objects from the elements — most temples have a shrine as their hearth. Temples that are built high enough then become citadels, around which a city might grow. 

Graveyards are a kind of amassing of shrines, although most graves are venerated only by the loved ones of those laid in them. In early civilized times, it was common for the deceased to be buried underneath the homes in which they once lived, and where the living apparently paid homage at shrines within the domus itself. 
Reconstruction of Catal Huyak, the earliest town

In China, the practice of ancestor-worship was maintained long into civilized times, for although the departed were laid in necropolises, shrines to their memory were maintained in the family home itself. 

In pagan Europe, it was common to have out-of-doors shrines to particular gods and goddesses, and during the Middle Ages this tradition endured under Catholicism, in which the saints were worshiped at shrines where they lived or (sometimes) where they died. 

The roadside shrine, which became commonplace in the last years of the twentieth century, seems a combination of the European and Chinese traditions. 

They are almost always objects of care and veneration only for the loved ones of the deceased. But the left-behinds are also determined that the shrines should be blatantly public markers, and indeed, they are seen by perhaps thousands of people each day as they pass by in their cars. 

These roadside shrines may well be given more attention than the actual gravesites of the deceased person they pay homage to. Complaints about how such shrines constitute a driving hazard have lead many jurisdictions to curb them outright, which the municipal government of Ottawa did recently. 

I’m unsure how this will affect the shrine to the young woman killed by her boyfriend’s careless driving, as the land on which it sits belongs to the federal government, and thus the city has no say over it. 

It is a coincidence, too, that she died on a roadway just adjacent to a facility devoted to scientific research. But the contrast between an artefact with deep, superstitious roots in the human psyche, being placed at the frontier of a place devoted to expunging this very thing from the human mind, cannot be overlooked.