Freedoms fought for
Our article last week on the city council’s proposal to ban offensive words or symbols from headstones at Whenua Tapu drew some passionate and volatile responses from online readers.
It was not unexpected. Visiting the graves of loved ones is an emotional experience at the best of times. Likewise, we Westerners don’t take kindly to any talk of restricting our freedom of expression – particularly when it may concern our final act of expression on this earth.
The incident that sparked the council’s proposal was in 2008 when a woman asked for her husband’s grave at Whenua Tapu to be moved because she found the neighbouring headstone offensive.
It would be interesting to know how much traction – and wider media attention – the issue would have received had the offending marking been a dirty nickname or, say, pornographic cartoon.
Of course, it wasn’t, it was gang insignia, and thus the debate became as much about gangs and the remarks of local Mongrel Mob member Dennis Makalio as it did folks’ entitlement to have the headstone of their choosing and what might be deemed offensive and what might not.
Still, it was great to see a lot of considered and insightful viewpoints expressed among the profanity and threats.
It’s a damn tricky issue – I know I can’t make up my mind. So long as nobody is physically hurt, persecuted or discriminated against, I’m loath to see anyone told what they can or can’t put on their headstone.
I’ve always considered it healthy to be offended now and again, be it by a song, a piece of art or a T-shirt slogan. It makes you think about your values, sensibilities and prejudices. It triggers discussion and debate – which is rarely a bad thing.
Of course, cemeteries are more sacred than T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans.
If I visited the grave of my grandfather, who fought in World War II, and saw a swastika on the next headstone, I’d be mad as hell – regardless of the intended symbolism.
I would like to think I’d get past it and recognise that the right of the next-door deceased to have what he liked on his tombstone did, in some warped way, symbolise what Granddad had fought for in Europe (though he himself would not appreciate such a viewpoint).
I would also consider that a displeasing nearby headstone is far less insulting than finding a loved one’s grave vandalised, pillaged of items, or littered with trash – all of which are sadly more common occurrences at our cemeteries and, when reported, don’t draw nearly as much outrage.
Matthew Dallas, editor