A roadside memorial is a marker that usually commemorates a site where a person died suddenly and unexpectedly, away from home. Unlike a grave site headstone, which marks where a body is laid, the memorial marks the last place on earth where a person was alive - although in the past travelers were, out of necessity, often buried where they fell.
Usually the memorial is created and maintained by family members or friends of the person who died. A common type of memorial is simply a bunch of flowers, real or plastic, taped to street furniture or a tree trunk. A handwritten message, personal mementos etc. may be included. More sophisticated memorials may be a memorial cross or a plaque with an inscription, decorated with flowers or wreaths.
Meaning and message
But apart from their personal significance, these memorials also serve as a reminder and warning to other road users of the dangers of driving, and to encourage safer driving. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Arizona State Highway Patrol began using white crosses to mark the site of fatal car accidents. This practice was continued by families of road-crash victims after it had been abandoned by the police. The ghost bike phenomenon, where an old bicycle is painted white and locked up at an accident site, serves the same purpose in relation to cycling casualties.
Historically, roadside memorials were personal memorials, but there is a modern trend toward public memorials of increasingly large size. Typically little or no effort is made to make the memorials accommodate the natural beauty of the landscape and many roadside memorials, over time, lack proper maintenance.
The phenomenon of roadside memorials may be associated with another growing trend: public outpouring of grief for celebrities. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, precipitated an avalanche of flowers and wreaths at the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris, the site of her death, and at Kensington Palace, her home in London. While car-crash victims are rarely so well known, something of the same sort of impulse to make a public display of emotion at the site of a tragedy may be partly responsible for the growing popularity of roadside memorials.
History and practice
Roadside memorials have been erected around the world for centuries. Their legality varies from country to country.
It is traditional in Ukraine to place a roadside memorial on the site of a deadly car or motorcycle crash. It is usually a cross or a small monument with a wreath of flowers. There are also usually fresh flowers regularly placed by the cross if the relatives of the person who died live close enough to look after the memorial. Sometimes Ukrainian roadside memorials can be more elaborate, including a small granite or marble gravestone and/or a picture of the loved one.
In the United Kingdom, the practice of erecting roadside memorials has recently generated a media debate about the danger these memorials may pose to other road users and to people erecting them in unsafe places. This debate has been sparked by accounts of dangerous actions, such as when an adult crosses a main road with a child to place a tribute. Some jurisdictions already enforce local regulations, and police officials and local councilors have suggested that uniform rules be introduced across the country. For example, according to the BBC, in Merthyr Tydfil, memorials will only be allowed where it is deemed safe and appropriate, and they will be removed after three months.
The recent spread of spontaneous roadside memorials to mark the site of fatal traffic accidents in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon. A typical memorial includes a cross (usually wooden), flowers, hand-painted signs, and in the case of a child's death, stuffed animals.
The origin of roadside crosses in the United States has its roots with the early Hispanic settlers of the Southwestern United States, and are common in areas with large Hispanic populations. Formerly, in funerary processions where a group would proceed from a church to a graveyard carrying a coffin, the bearers would take a rest, or descanso in Spanish, and wherever they set the coffin down, a cross would be placed there in memory of the event. The modern practice of roadside shrines commemorate the last place a person was alive before receiving fatal injuries in a car crash, even if he should actually die in a hospital after the crash.
In the southwestern United States, they are also common at historic parajes on old long distance trails, going back to the roots of the tradition, and also marked the graves of people who died while traveling. A descanso memorial may be decorated especially for the holidays, and for significant anniversaries in the person's life. A descanso memorial for a child may be decorated with special toys, even toy vignettes of family life, and votive candles may be placed there on special nights.
In New Mexico, Department of Transportation crews undertaking new construction are not required to protect them, but usually either avoid altering them, or otherwise place them as close to where they originally were as possible once construction has been completed as a courtesy.
In the United States, the legal situation varies from state to state. In California, residents must pay a state fee of $1,000. The states of Colorado, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin ban such memorials. Other states impose specific requirements. In Birmingham, Alabama, roadside memorials have been removed from Interstate highways. Some people view unauthorized street memorials as illegal and think they constitute the taking of public property for private purposes, and are also a distraction and therefore dangerous to the motoring public. Others think they serve as a sort of public service announcement that reminds drivers to be careful and drive safely, and are no more distracting than any other roadside advertisement.
Using a Christian cross as a memorial along a public highway can be seen as an illegal endorsement of religion and has been challenged in a growing number of lawsuits by secular groups concerned about the separation of church and state. On August 18, 2010 the Tenth Circuit held that the State of Utah violated the Establishment Clause by constructing a series of 12-foot high Latin crosses along the roadside to memorialize fallen state troopers. In Lake Elsinore California, a personal roadside cross was removed following a complaint by the American Humanist Association.
- Tay, R., Churchill, A. & de Barros, A. 2011. Effect of roadside memorial on traffic flow, Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 43, pp.483-486
- Tay, R. 2009. Drivers’ perceptions and reactions to roadside memorials, Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. pp.41, 663-669
- Motha, Joe, ed. (2003), Road Safety in Australia: a Publication Commemorating World Health Day 2004, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, p. 290, retrieved 21 December 2009
- "'Dangerous' road tributes concern". BBC News. 15 March 2006. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- "I25 crews protect roadside memorial". Krqe.com. 2009-03-03. Retrieved 2009-08-29.
- Commercial Appeal : Memphis News, Business, Homes, Jobs, Cars, & Information[dead link]
- "(see state by state requirements)". Descansos.org. 2004-09-08. Retrieved 2011-11-13.
- Roadside Memorials Being Removed on Birmingham Interstates - AOL Autos
- "American Atheists, Inc. v. Duncan". Retrieved 10 March 2014.
- "Mom Who Lost Son In Fatal Crash To Remove Cross Memorial After Atheist Group Complains". CBS Los Angeles. 6 March 2014. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
|Look up descanso in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Temporary monuments and memorials.|
- Definition of "descanso" from Doubletongued.org
- Information and Photos of Roadside Memorials in the United States
- United States National Registry of Highway and Roadside Memorials
- Australian National Registry of Highway and Roadside Memorials
- Australian Broadcasting Commission transcript of White lines, White Crosses, broadcast 7 December 2003
- Further information and pictures accompanying the story White Lines, White Crosses
- Photos and information about roadside memorials throughout Florida. Includes links to every state memorial marker programs.
- Pictorial of Roadside Memorials throughout So. Florida
- Roadside Memorials of South Texas
- Roadside Memorials of France
- WashingtonPost article on roadside memorials in Washington DC
- Zarrilli, Tom. "Crosses, Flowers, and Asphalt: Roadside Memorials in the U.S. South," Southern Spaces 19 August 2009. http://southernspaces.org/2009/crosses-flowers-and-asphalt-roadside-memorials-us-south