Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mob Stones: Speech and Cemetery

Mongrel Mob Headstone
The contentious dialogue regarding what activities and which forms of memorialization are appropriate for cemeteries, is not confined to the United States or the antics of the gay and military bashing Westboro Baptist Church.  In previous posts, I have highlighted the controversies over bicycles, political speech and even the establishment of living quarters within cemetery walls.  Today, we look at new cemetery policies in New Zealand that are putting a bee in the pickelhaube of local gang members.    

Mongrel Mob Headstone at Whenua Tapu cemetery
According to news sources (Kapi-Mana, Stuff NZ, and 3News NZ,) Porirua City Council is moving to expand the scope of their oversight regarding proposed monuments at the city cemeteries.  Currently, the council can only reject monuments based on size.  The new language would allow it to consider issues of individual monuments causing offence.

Dennis Makalio sits the grave of a Mongrel Mob member at Whenua Tapu cemetery,
This move follows a 2008 instance of a widow exhuming and moving her husband's remains after a Mongrel Mob gang member was buried next to him, memorialized by a headstone that featured gang insignia.

Meanwhile in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, a group of  fallen Hells Angels seem to be capturing little attention. 
Gang member and historian, Dennis Makalio is challenging the new regulations, claiming that  his gang identity is similar to a religious membership, and likens the removal of gang insignia from headstones to removing symbols of faith such as crosses, or to military insignia.

Deciding just what expression is offensive, is a task that seems simple at first blush, but in actual practice proves slippery and prickley.  We may 'know offensive when we see it" but what is the absolute ethically justifiable criteria?  What community do we base our "community standards" on?  If it's the Westoboro Baptist community, we'd be talking about military insignia and burying same sex partners together.  If were were in Germany under the Nazis, Hebrew graves would be the target.  Add to this the less than perfect reputation of gangsters respecting the rights of others - should this be considered?.

If Mr. Makalio is a world historian as well as his gang's historian, he should know that the victors write the history books.  In the end they will determine whether his protest is seen as a frivolous waste of council time, or an important defense of speech and religious freedom. 

I'd love to see my readers thoughts and comments on this issue!   


Charles Cowling said...

Ach, it's impossible! The cultural defence allied to the free speech defence (not to mention mutterings about racism) completely skewer any liberal democracy. Taste cannot be expected to hold the ring - whose taste? Is it right to practise cultural apartheid by putting them all together in their own section?

An excruciatingly difficult problem - if a problem at all.

In time, these cultural artefacts will be prized, of course...

Unknown said...

I've only run across one grouping of gang members in a cemetery and that's the Free Souls in the Sailor-Noti Cemetery in rural Lane County, Oregon (and that's out of 750 cemeteries in three states). As far as I know, there's been no problems with that.

As you know, I happen to have perfect taste and everyone else is a bit suspect. Ask me, if there's a question.

I'm more afraid of religious iconography than gang insignias. I've got a lot more to fear from the Catholics than I do from the Free Souls.

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