Roadside memorials

From time to time, I pass a handmade cross on the side of the road. I am vaguely aware that such crosses mark the site of a tragedy. These are very personal memorials to loved ones who died prematurely and violently. But I hadn’t really attended to the practice until this weekend.

Evidently they have become a social phenomenon.

roadside memorial 1

(Note the work gloves.)

An article in the Ottawa Citizen made me stop and think. And today, when I googled “roadside memorials”, Google returned 38,000 hits, including this one:

On the Pacific Highway in [New South Wales, Australia], north of Clybucca, is a white cross by the roadside.

It tells any passerby that Timothy was born on November 5, 1987 and on April 8, 2001 he was “born to eternal life”. Motorists speeding by see Timothy’s memorial out of the corner of an eye, friends and family come to mourn there and bring floral tributes, and road maintenance workers know to leave it alone.

In the process of claiming public road space for themselves, those who construct these memorials clearly desire to go beyond the management of mourning practices and spaces provided by the traditional authorities of the church and the state. Timothy was “born to eternal life” by the roadside; that place is now sacred space.

[source: Pointers, journal of the Christian Research Association, Australia]

Road memorials mark the site of a traffic fatality. They have proliferated because so many people die prematurely in automobile accidents. The Citizen reports:

Once found mostly in Catholic countries, roadside shrines are now common in Canada, the United States, Europe, Britain and Australia, where about 20 per cent of road deaths attract memorials. With an estimated 1.2 million traffic deaths worldwide annually — including nearly 2,800 in Canada, 850 in Ontario and about 30 in Ottawa — there’s no shortage of victims to memorialize.

Undoubtedly this is part of the message of these roadside memorials, sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a week of rain. They are probably not intended as a gesture of protest, but they do have that effect.

Don Baccus puts it succinctly:  What’s the message behind these photos? How does “drive safely” sound?

It’s a good reminder. When you’re behind the wheel of a car, it only takes a moment of inattention at the wrong time to cut short someone’s life. I do not want to live with that on my conscience.

Despite the obvious connection with automobile accidents, roadside memorials originated in an era before cars. This account takes us back to a simpler time:

THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos (“resting places”). …

“THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

“The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

“Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots. …

“Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young.”

[source: Descansos; the text in quotation marks is from Descansos: An Interrupted Journey, by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995)]

Contemporary memorials mark an evolution in our religious practices; a kind of democratization of religion, given that this is a grassroots phenomenon. The Citizen reports:

“These practices mark an historic change,” says John Belshaw, acting dean of arts at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. “The grieving process has gone into the public domain.” …

One of the striking things about roadside memorials is their similarity in every country in which they appear. While some are simple wreaths or bouquets of flowers, the more permanent shrines usually feature crosses, often with the name and date of death of the victim. Some also include personal mementoes such as stuffed teddy bears, pictures, cards and letters, sports equipment and other meaningful items.

A few shrines are virtual celebrations of hard-living, risk-taking machismo. While such memorials are most common in Australia, they can be found in Canada as well. One that Mr. Belshaw and Ms. Purvey found in B.C. featured beer bottles and packs of cigarettes, with images of well-endowed women plastered on the cross.

“In that case, the cross is clearly being used ironically,” he says. “He clearly didn’t lead a good Christian life.” …

Mr. Belshaw admits that when he and his wife began their research, the whole notion of roadside memorials left him feeling a bit queasy.

“I thought it was a bit grisly and grim,” he says, “but I’m increasingly of the mind that it’s one of the healthiest things the public’s ever done.”

That’s a view shared by another academic who has studied the roadside memorial phenomenon, Jennifer Clark, of Australia’s University of New England. …

This represents “a dramatic shift towards the democratization of memorialization,” Ms. Clark contends.

“Roadside memorials are not earned as a reward for selfless or admirable deeds, nor do they commemorate service in public office. Rather, those they remember are ordinary men, women and children with no claim to fame. They may even have died because their actions were foolish, such as speeding, driving while drunk, or driving while tired.”

I found this comment particularly poignant:

Researchers have noticed the tendency to infantilize victims in their teens and twenties by surrounding their memorials with soft toys and other talismans of childhood.

To Mr. Belshaw, this is a reference to the victim’s lost potential for redemption. “When a 19-year-old comes out of a bar three sheets to the wind and wraps his car around a lamp post and the next morning you find teddy bears at the accident site,” he says, “that’s a statement that essentially this was a good person who could have been redeemed.”

The article from Pointers (cited earlier) also reflects on the spiritual significance of road memorials. The authors call attention to the concept of sacred space:

Although memorials that use apparent religious symbols signal a significant link with Christian faith, this is not necessarily the case. The use of such symbols may in fact be little more than an attempt to find culturally appropriate symbols to express death, where there has previously been a paucity of such symbols apart from those offered by institutional religion. …

The memorials witness primarily to the spiritual significance of place. Their role is to mark the very spot where life was lost. Some memorials are explicit about that and refer, for example, to Sharon who was “tragically killed at this spot” or Sandra, Stacey and Joanne, all “tragically taken at this spot” or Jody who “died here”. …

When a roadside memorial is erected it suggests that the cemetery or crematorium is unsatisfying as a focal point for mourning. Anecdotally the place of death holds a stronger spiritual connection with the individual than any place of final rest of the body. There remains something intrinsically more important about the place where life ceased or, more accurately, where a life-changing event occurred.

At this point, I think we are approaching an explanation for the phenomenon. The majority of people no longer feel any sense of personal attachment to a religious institution or a church community. When it’s time for a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral, the clergy who performs the rite of passage is often a complete stranger. Even the cemetery has become a place of little spiritual consequence:

When the state-controlled secularised cemeteries replaced the more communally-based churchyards in the 19th Century, a sense of community was lost, as well as a spiritually meaningful place to mourn the dead.

“The cemetery,” wrote Thomas W. Laquer, “would not speak of a place but of people from all places … unknown to each other in life and thrown together in a place with which they might have had only the most transitory acquaintance”.

By contrast, the site of the death is instantly infused with a profound personal significance.

Not everyone is thrilled with the proliferation of roadside memorials. It certainly puts municipalities in an awkward position: the space has been privatized and hallowed, but it remains public property. West Virginia has posted a primer for roadside memorials on the Web to try to retain some control.

Private citizens may have mixed feelings, too. Returning to the Citizen‘s account:

Family members are not always pleased when friends erect roadside memorials to their loved ones.

Mr. Belshaw tells of a woman in Victoria [British Columbia] whose son was killed in a traffic accident. Friends put up a memorial and she went along with the idea. But she had to drive past it every day to get out of the cul-de-sac where she lived. “It was like a knife through her heart,” he says. “She really suffered with it.”

Sometimes property owners near the accident scene object because they find the constant reminder of tragic death depressing.

“People tend to react fairly viscerally to them one way or another,” says Mr. Belshaw. “Some will say, ‘I don’t need to be reminded of my own mortality on a daily basis.’ Others will say, ‘Yes, you do’.”

Put me in the latter camp. We’re too insulated from death in our society. If road memorials remind people that we all have to take death into account, I think that’s a social good.

roadside memorial 2

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. chosha
    Oct 27, 2005 @ 23:41:00

    That was really interesting and a little moving. Those markers are common in Australia, too.

    Though it isn’t a funny topic, I did smile at this sentence:
    “When you’re behind the wheel of a car, it only takes a moment of inattention at the wrong time to cut short someone’s life.”
    The first thing I thought of was, ‘like a moment of inattention looking at a roadside memorial?’ That would be tragically ironic, to have an accident because a marker of a previous accident caught your eye.


  2. Mary P.
    Oct 28, 2005 @ 08:58:00

    LOL – that exactly what I thought when I read it – but I wasn’t sure I should say so!

    I’m ambivalent about these things. Until reading this post, though, I was opposed to them, so it’s been interesting to consider them through a different window.

    Prior to this, I’d seen them as self-aggrandizing: “Look at me and my misery; no one’s suffered as I have”.

    Now I can see that they’re expressing a less ignoble sentiment, and also disclosing a greater social need/larger societal trend, and I’m intrigued.

    I know that I would never erect one, because I wouldn’t want strangers ogling at my grief; it would make me feel like an emotional freak show. That doesn’t mean that it is wrong to erect one, however.

    When I read that last section about the family members who are distressed by memorials put up by friends, my immediate thought – which hasn’t changed – is that family members should have the right to take it down, if it only increases their pain. A true friend wouldn’t be offended, though they might be disappointed. Friends who would be offended by this probably are motivated by self-aggrandizement, and are not truly concerned about the grief of those who are suffering most.


  3. Q
    Oct 28, 2005 @ 09:11:00

    • Chosha:
    Thanks for the comment. It’s fascinating to see you and Mary P. reacting to exactly the same sentence from opposite sides of the globe.

    • Mary P.
    You already know I agree with you about the potential for self-aggrandizement.

    As you say, these memorials disclose a social need.

    I am convinced that you cannot leave a void in place of the Christian faith we all had in common once. People still need to mark births and deaths as significant moments in their personal / family history. If a church service no longer holds meaning for people, they will evolve some other practice to take its place.

    It is indeed fascinating!


  4. Carolyn
    Oct 28, 2005 @ 16:44:00


    I’ve always loved roadside memorials (not that someone passed, but to memorialize them).

    There’s one in St. Louis that is a diamond shape of white rocks with a red rocked “D” in the middle. It’s all edged with gardening edger and there are solar operated lamps at each point of the diamond. The are is always well mowed…sometimes the grass is overgrown except for about 2 feet around this thing. I’ll try to take a picture and post it on my blog if I can safely do it. Thanks for the post.


  5. Q
    Oct 28, 2005 @ 16:45:00

    Thanks! I hope you can post that photo, I’d love to see it.


  6. The Misanthrope
    Oct 28, 2005 @ 17:17:00

    I am hopeful I would never have a need to consider a roadside memorial, but if I did, I would opt not to do that. I find them absolutely worthless. I feel bad that someone has died on a particular spot, but there is no reason for a public memorial. I do like the idea of resting spots such as a little bench.


  7. Bill
    Oct 28, 2005 @ 17:24:00

    Similar to these are mountain crosses that mark the deaths of climbers.

    Having seen a few of these they are inspiring, often on wind swept outcroppings with the sun rising or setting behind them.

    I see all these memorials are much like the Inukshuks created by inuit in Canada’s north, they say we were here, and more so, as they say we were human we grieved.


  8. Q
    Oct 29, 2005 @ 06:28:00

    • Misanthrope:
    I find [road memorials] absolutely worthless. I feel bad that someone has died on a particular spot, but there is no reason for a public memorial.

    When you say there’s no reason for it, I assume you mean that people can commemorate their loved ones elsewhere: e.g. a cemetery.

    But from the perspective of the grieving people, there is a need for something more than a grave site in a cemetery. So you’re really just asserting your opinion (“not needed”) over against theirs (“needed”).

    What specifically do you object to? Is it, like Mary P., that you think they’re making a public show of their private grief? Is it, like the person mentioned toward the end of the post, that you don’t think we need to be confronted all the time with people’s deaths?

    • Bill:
    Are Inukshuks used to mark graves? Inukshuks help people find their bearings in a region devoid of landmarks. I believe they sometimes mark a cache of food. And they are also a symbol of a human presence in a sparsely populated land.

    I wouldn’t have said they have anything in common with road memorials, but maybe you know more about it than I do. I can’t say that I’ve ever studied the subject.


  9. Tomas
    Dec 18, 2006 @ 07:40:28

    road memorials … our attitude towards roads memorials to the unknown to us in face is a measurement of our own heart and reflects the level of our comprehension of the life that we are used to name a road.
    Road memorials serve us like wonderful mirrors that gift us a new meaning to the well-known Hi.
    Road memorials look like entrance into the blessed world where any comments would look like a blapshemy and where the miraculous silence heals and refreshes – restores the heart


  10. Stephen
    Dec 19, 2006 @ 11:20:49

    Tomas, your comment reads like poetry.


  11. billarends
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 09:36:58

    Sorry I’m late reading this I didn’t realise you responded to this one. By this time and your experience you have probably become more familiar with Inukshuks. Rather than only as markers for food cashes or directional markers they serve (as I am told) a purpose similar to road side shrines. Shrines and monuments are to mark that a person has existed after his passing. Inukshuks mark that people have passed that way that they were there. The literal translation of Inuksuk (Inuktitut spelling) means “acts as a person.” The idiomtic reference as I am told is simply that someone has gone here before or passed this way. If you take road side shrines as an act to mark that some one has lived and consequently died at this point, then it serves a very similar purpose.


  12. Connie
    Mar 19, 2012 @ 12:48:13

    Our 27 year old son, Dylan, was killed in a horrific car accident March 1, 2011,and we are planning to put up a marker to consecrate the spot where he passed. We learned that other people have died at this same spot before and after our precious son died. We believe that if drivers’ can see the memorial that they will be more careful when they approach the area and we will make certain that it is not something that will cause driver’s to be careless, and if by putting up a memorial for Dylan we can prevent further deaths and accidents, than the memorial will have served more than one purpose. We’ll be honoring our son, consecrating the spot he died, and it will be for God’s glory as well. Our son’s beautiful girlfriend and children are waiting patiently for us to mark the spot- as are his many friends that aren’t exactly sure where the accident took place. Further, we are working with the state patrol to make certain to choose something safe. As far as “self-aggrandizement” most people cannot pronounce it, but we are putting the marker up, not our son, but he himself was indeed a grand person. I regret that I live so far from Utah, as we are in Wisconsin, and I’d like to be able to see it!


  13. NTWrong
    Mar 29, 2012 @ 03:12:17

    Your comment is very moving, Connie. My parents suffered the loss of two of their children (which means I have lost a brother and a sister, of course). So I have some idea how difficult it is to accept a death that is contrary to the natural order of things.

    I commend you for finding a constructive way to respond to Dylan’s death. God bless you.


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