Roadside memorials.
November 5, 2002 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Roadside memorials. Every so often you'll catch one out of the corner of your eye--a makeshift cross on the side of a highway, or flowers tacked to a highway sign, marking a life that ended in that spot. Gives me chills--realistically, probably every single day we pass places where someone breathed their last, but we don't know it. Photographer Bill Sampson takes photographs of roadside memorials--called "descansos" from a Spanish word meaning rest--and collects them on his site. Loved ones are invited to submit memorials of their own. (Link via USA Today Web Guide.)
posted by GaelFC (39 comments total)
May I honestly ask - what is the purpose of these roadside memorials? I don't understand them.
posted by agregoli at 11:00 AM on November 5, 2002

Here's the roadside memorial that I know best. Phil McDonald's wife Mary Kay was killed by a public bus at the corner of Cleveland and Ford Parkway in St. Paul in 1990. McDonald became an activist for pedestrian rights after his wife's death, and whenever I drove through Highland Park, I would always see a bouquet of flowers taped to a light pole by where Mary Kay McDonald died. In season they were lilacs, because the McDonalds were married in May, when lilacs were in bloom. When I spot the flowers, I would always think that really, my problems are small, considering.
posted by GaelFC at 11:03 AM on November 5, 2002

are they all crosses (the ones i checked out seemed to be)? in s america you see quite a variety of shrines etc. not all of them are for the dead; many are to give thanks for "intervention" ([self-link] there's a photo (not anything like the quality on that site, i'm afraid) of one here - the message scratched on a stone said "thanks for the favour granted"). sometimes, people decide that a particular spot is particularly potent and you get a whole slew of little shrines, with candles etc.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:04 AM on November 5, 2002

Agregoli--I suspect that some folks just want their dead loved ones remembered, but I know for a fact others want to draw attention to a deadly intersection--saying "people have died here, this needs to be fixed."
posted by GaelFC at 11:05 AM on November 5, 2002

I can understand the latter - it does make a point about dangerous intersections and stretches of roadway. But I don't want my loved one remembered at their last, mangled from a car wreck. Also, people don't usually commemorate other places of death ("Oh, this is the armchair Granny died in!"), so I don't understand placing a marker there. But, I suppose if it helps with the grieving process, it's ok.
posted by agregoli at 11:09 AM on November 5, 2002

The Tombstone Travel site has a pretty extensive and interesting essay on roadside memorials, including both those sanctioned by the state or organizations and spontaneous ones by individuals or families.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:24 AM on November 5, 2002

Great link.
There are a few of these on a road I routinely drive. They always disturb me a little. I once saw a family in the act of erecting one of these on the highway, with police escort. It was awful to watch.

agregoli: It's pretty normal for people to leave flowers, wreaths, crosses, cards, etc., at the scene of tragic deaths. (Think shootings, bombings, Diana's car crash.) I don't think there is anything particularly weird about these.
posted by Fabulon7 at 11:36 AM on November 5, 2002

But why? Why does this happen? I'm only trying to probe a little deeper into the psychology of this issue. In the case of famous people, perhaps it's because it will be awhile before there is an official memorial or grave to visit and make these offerings. But for regular folks, who will be buried relatively soon, it doesn't make sense to me to mark the place where they died, especially when they have a more appropriate place to do so (or at least a more traditional place to do so).
posted by agregoli at 11:40 AM on November 5, 2002

These are everywhere on the highways in Greece. IIRC they were birdhouse shaped with an area under the roof to place items. Very permanent looking.

It's a pretty good substitute for warning signs at dangerous curves.
posted by smackfu at 11:41 AM on November 5, 2002

Not everybody thinks so highly of them.
posted by agaffin at 11:48 AM on November 5, 2002

agregoli: I've read that some psychologists think that, beacuse the modern process of death and interment is so mediated, people lack truly effective closure when losing a loved one, especially when they are taken quickly (as in a car accident). Subsequently, people then "informally" stretch out the process with prolonged periods of public grieving and monument/shrine building. It stretches what is otherwise a very quick, sterile process (realize that, a little as a century ago, the body of one's deceased was treated and burried by the family itself, often on that family's personal burial plot on their land, a process that took days) into a more lengthy, more personally-directed and involved process.
posted by UncleFes at 12:01 PM on November 5, 2002

Interesting. That makes a lot of sense. People are often buried within a few days now, where the process used to be a lot longer (like a week). Just because a funeral has taken place doesn't mean people aren't still grieving. Still, the link posted by agaffin is a good read, and I agree that the memorials are sometimes road hazards themselves.
posted by agregoli at 12:05 PM on November 5, 2002

I think these roadside memorials are psychologically necessary now because of the way death and grief have become so compartmentalized and removed from our daily lives.

In the past, gravesites were in a community graveyard in the middle of the village, or in a family burial plot close to home. Now we bury our dead in huge, monotonous, impersonal cemetaries outside of town where we don't have to see them. It's so easy now to just forget about the dead who aren't our close family or friends. You know, out of sight, out of mind.

Two classmates of mine (a brother & sister) were killed 7 years ago in a bad traffic accident. I have no idea where they're buried, but when I drive by the roadside memorial their family still maintains, I always remember them and the tragedy of their loss. Call me sentimental.
posted by junkbox at 12:05 PM on November 5, 2002

Side note: Roads are unsafe places to just pull over to view something. There has been several folks killed viewing their loved one's shrine around Dallas. There too sad to say more. But being next to a road as a pedestrian is not safe, especially with kids.

If this helps as there is no true way to greive, it yours to do as you wish. I say good if it keeps them out of harms way.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:12 PM on November 5, 2002

I guess that's a way to keep the people in the memory of those who wouldn't visit the cemetary, but I don't like this for two reasons: 1. Some people might very well not like to be reminded of them and 2. In my mind, it commemorates more the violent and awful nature of their death, rather than celebrating who they were. You can't get a good memory of a person by being reminded of how their death was tragic - the tragic death overwhelms any other recollection at that moment, which leads back to the reminder that the intersection is dangerous - in which case I think the public would be better served by more official signage to that effect.
posted by agregoli at 12:13 PM on November 5, 2002

There is a memorial at a telephone pole a few block from my house in San Antonio. It is regularly updated and very elaborate. The person's name was Oscar. There are always balloons, pictures, stuffed animals, a bottle of ketchup -- all kinds of stuff. I think family and friends both help with the upkeep.

I personally find it very touching and I hope someone cares as much about me when I am gone.
posted by botono9 at 12:19 PM on November 5, 2002

I would never put up a roadside cross or memorial, it's just not my way. But when I lost a friend a few years ago to a pulmonary embolism at age 28, I understood the urge to have such a loss remembered. I inquired at the high school we both attended about raising money for some kind of donation there, but nothing came of it.

And recently, my husband and I went to his high-school reunion, which included the Homecoming game. The football field has a big sign on it proclaiming it KEITH RITCHIE FIELD. Keith Ritchie was a student there at the time my husband went to school who was killed in a horrible car accident--I think he was waiting to be picked up somewhere and was hit and dragged by a car. Of course it was News Story #1 during Rob's high school days, but now, to these current students, it's just a name that means nothing, as far removed from them as George Washington.

Off topic, I guess, but I'm fascinated by remembering, and the odd ways we do it.
posted by GaelFC at 12:19 PM on November 5, 2002

Yes people,

Thanks to the omniscient Wayback Machine, we can always remember the Onion's sensitive take on roadway commemoration.
posted by dgaicun at 12:23 PM on November 5, 2002 doesn't make sense to me to mark the place where they died, especially when they have a more appropriate place to do so (or at least a more traditional place to do so).

Well, depending on the culture, descanos are extremely traditional. I live in New Mexico, where there's a Spanish Catholic culture that goes back over 400 years. Descansos are extremely common, and I think you'd be hard pressed arguing that they don't make sense to someone whose family has been practicing the tradition for multiple generations. I think it's just the anglo practice of creating these markers that's relatively new.

According to this site:

Traditionally, Descansos were memorials erected at the places where the funeral procession paused to rest on the journey between the church and the cemetery. The association thus created between the road, the interrupted journey, and death as a destination, eventually found expression in the practice of similarly marking the location of fatal accidents on the highway.
posted by hyperizer at 12:23 PM on November 5, 2002

Also, people don't usually commemorate other places of death

Not so, points of tragedy are frequently marked by a memorial. The difference here is the event affects a relatively small group of people thus the amateur nature of the memorial. One can think of many larger examples, the Lusitania, Titanic, Pan Am 103, Oklahoma City. As for a deeper meaning, does there need to be? I think it's interesting to see where people have died.
posted by rotifer at 12:26 PM on November 5, 2002

agregoli: Places of death from disaster are marked all the time. I think perhaps marking the place where the person was last alive helps some people understand their death (and may help keep their memory more alive than a grave marker could). Before you get to celebrating someone's life, or even visiting a cemetery to mourn at their grave, you first have to accept their death. It's much easier to jump straight to that when you're dealing with someone older, and/or someone whose death was expected (thanks to what's called "anticipatory grieving", which helps you prepare for the death). But given that so many of the people for whom these roadside memorials are erected were young (many were children or teenagers), and that all of the deaths were sudden (even the ones where the people were taken off life support later count as "sudden", I think), I think it's harder to accept their deaths and get to the celebration of their lives.

Awesome link GaelFC. Thanks. Some of the pictures are really evocative, even accounting for the high emotional impact of the subject matter. There are a couple of really powerful ones with the memorial in the foreground, so still and quiet, with vehicles speeding past on the road in the background.
posted by biscotti at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2002

I believe it was obvious I was referring to smaller tragedies and not larger ones, since I made the distinction between celebrity deaths (and by extension, famous places of death) and these roadside memorials.

The Descansos stuff was very interesting though, thank you.
posted by agregoli at 12:32 PM on November 5, 2002

There's a book of photos called "On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam," which collects photos of famous and infamous spots--mostly crime scenes--years after the crime has passed into memory. Some have become famous (the motel where Martin Luther King was shot) but others have just gone back to the earth (the place where Karen Silkwood died, the spot where the so-called Preppie Murder occurred). It's fascinating how ordinary the spots look until you know what happened there.
posted by GaelFC at 12:32 PM on November 5, 2002

The spots are quite ordinary. Deaths, even tragic ones are a quite ordinary part of the human condition.

I hope to be remembered also after I'm gone, but not in perpetuity in the public view. Perhaps those that love me will move on with their lives, after an appropriate amount of grief. So if any of you spy my loved ones maintaining a roadside memorial 6 months after I'm gone, please send them to therapy. I'll stipulate that in my will.
posted by TuffAustin at 12:52 PM on November 5, 2002

smackfu: I was going to bring up Greece. I remember some mountain roads where the tighter turns could have up to a half dozen memorials along the edge. Not overly comforting.

There's a small picture of one here.
posted by Cyrano at 12:57 PM on November 5, 2002

What is wrong with you people?

Roadside memorials look trashy, and they are a distraction to drivers.

When I'm gone, I would hope not to be remembered with a mound of glittery, plastic, trashy, religious crap at the side of the road.
posted by free pie at 2:29 PM on November 5, 2002

Here's a brief article on the phenomenon in New Zealand. Our 'road-toll' is astronomical, and the controversial crosses first appeared in my hometown, on the route I used to spend 80 minutes on every day.
Mostly they are seen as a reminder about road safety, but lately they are so common they are becoming easy to ignore, (sadly). Some sprout massive displays of plastic flowers and odd tributes; beer bottles at the spot that Gang member went under a truck, foil windmills where a child died. One cross was surrounded by a stone edging in the shape of a grave, and someone obviously took a great deal of effort to create a mini-garden there. While I might personally find that display a bit tacky or creepy, It is obviously very natural and helpful to some people to connect with the spot where a loved one lived their last moments. Also, cremation means that many families won't have a gravesite to visit.
On preview, free pie, I promise not to remember you in any way.
posted by Catch at 2:39 PM on November 5, 2002

These have become quite common here in Australia, particularly on highways. I have not seen anything of the scale that Catch mentions, they are usually either flowers tied to a post or tree or a simple cross.

I realise that everyone copes in their own way, but it seems somehow wrong to remember the way someone died rather than the way they lived.

free pie, I have forgotten you already.
posted by dg at 5:06 PM on November 5, 2002

I don't think the point here is whether or not -- it's why these have become so ubiquitous in just a short time, perhaps 15 years by my memory. I know they weren't at all common when I was growing up. I wouldn't be surprised if it does derive from a Hispanic influence, but that wouldn't account for Australia as much.
posted by dhartung at 6:33 PM on November 5, 2002

[snide] How does one account for Australia? [/snide]
posted by Catch at 6:40 PM on November 5, 2002

[backatya] Where else would all the Kiwis go when they grow too intelligent to stand living in NZ any more? [/backatya]
posted by dg at 6:54 PM on November 5, 2002

dhartung, I am sure they have become common here much more recently - perhaps the past five years at the most.
posted by dg at 7:02 PM on November 5, 2002

It's pretty normal for people to leave flowers, wreaths, crosses, cards, etc., at the scene of tragic deaths.

Well, it has become so, but my impression is that it's a recent phenomenon. I don't recall seeing any such memorials earlier than around 1990. It certainly feels like a cultural innovation, at any rate; I don't have the sense that anyone I know would even think of putting up a roadside memorial.
posted by Mars Saxman at 7:47 PM on November 5, 2002

I think this is very well done. The black-and-white images are classic enough not to feel exploitative, and they run together in a way that seems to magnify the sense of tragedy, rather than lessen it. There's a distinct lack of "glittery, plastic, trashy, religious crap."

This one really struck me. The low viewing angle gives a real monumentality to it, combined with a spiritual feel from the framing of the cross in the sky.
Damn. What an awful story, and what a beautiful, understated way of representing it.

It's fascinating how ordinary the spots look until you know what happened there.

Have you seen Y Tu Mama Tambien, GaelFC? In the same way that Amelie highlighted the unnoticed joys in life, Mama calls your attention to the little, unrecognized tragedies. Roadside memorials give me much the same feeling--that there is pain and beauty in every inch of the world.
posted by hippugeek at 10:41 PM on November 5, 2002

Around where I live (Philadelphia/Wilmington area) people seem to feel the need to display their dead loved ones' names, birth and death dates, as well as relationship on the rear window of their vehicles. Sometimes it's just a very simple and small "In Loving Memory of John Doe, 1954-1997, Husband", but in other cases, it takes up the entire rear window with impossible to read cursive script, crosses, roses, etc. Worse is when the person has just died and the person hasn't been able to get to the body shop yet to have the memorial permanently put on their car and all the information is written in paint instead. I don't get it.

When I die, I want people to remember me, not the manner of my death and I would prefer to be memorialized in a more meaningful way than on a car window. Of course, I don't necessarily understand why grief has to be so noisily public, either. It doesn't make the pain any less and strikes me as an obvious plea for sympathy ("O, I am so sad, I have a dead family member, feel bad for meeeeeee...")--not that I'm not guilty of that at times, but Jesus H. Christ on a pogostick, I hope I've never been that obvious in my grief.
posted by eilatan at 6:18 AM on November 6, 2002

i find these all over the place. i have photos of many (not accessible to me at this moment) i never saw reason to put them on the web. michigan (most of it anyway) is a land of woods and trails, an orv and snowmobile 'paradise' and the most haunting of these memorials i have come across is located several miles up a rough trail north of u.s. 10 in the ward's hill area. plastic flowers, a cross and a plastic-sheathed flyer with the young man's photo and dates of birth and death. there is a telling scar on the tree. the date of death was new years eve several years ago. the trail is only passable by snowmobile in december. to me, it tells a sad tale of a young man, a snowmobile and too much alcohol.
posted by quonsar at 6:36 AM on November 6, 2002

There's a mass-hysteria element to these memorials, too. Not to the regular-guy ones, but to the well-publicized/famous-person deaths, certainly.

Did anyone see the trash pile that rose on the site of Jessica Dubroff's death? This was the little kid who tried to fly cross-country and crashed on takeoff somewhere in Wyoming. It was preposterous, a head-high heap of teddy bears, cards and other crap. I know people have their own reasons for doing this, but I couldn't help but think lots were there because they wanted to be photographed and end up on TV.

But nothing compared to the Princess Diana hysteria. The weekend she died, there was a collector-car auction near where I live. One of the cars for sale was a Bentley that Diana had once ridden in, at least 10 years prior, on a visit to the States. That whisper-thin connection made, people swarmed around this car to place flowers in the backseat. Flowers! In the backseat! Where her famous ass once rested for an hour or two, a decade prior!

I ask you: If cameras hadn't been there to record this tender tribute, would it have had a reason to exist
posted by nance at 7:04 AM on November 6, 2002

Speaking of Jessica Dubroff and weird memorials....

I can understand people's aversion to tacky, plastic memorials, but in New Mexico, many descansos are simple wood or metal crosses and are decades old. The NM highway department has gone to great pains not to disturb them.
posted by hyperizer at 9:51 AM on November 6, 2002

I feel so incredibly out of touch. I always thought these things were yet another island aberrration resulting from the mix of cultures here in Hawaii.

I see from comments that their apperance is a more recent phenomenon in many communities, but they've been around here since I was a little kid, and no doubt much earlier.

Mentioned above is the Spanish practice, and the Catholic element probably explains why it's common here, too, for example among Filipino families. But, in answer to andrew cooke's question, they're not always crosses, or religious in nature... at least in my clearly limited experience. I've seen food (probably Japanese or Chinese in origin), toys, flower lei...

Some are maintained for years, some reappear for yearly anniversaries, but most are just temporary. And not surprisingly, there are some stretches of particularly trecherous highways where you can't drive a mile without seeing one.

I always thought first about the "someone died here, drive safely" angle, but the psychological issues raised above certainly seem plausible. Car accidents are easily among the most common of the otherwise unusual "sudden and unexpected" death. Losing someone who just zipped out to get a gallon of milk is different than someone passing away after a long illness, or of old age.
posted by pzarquon at 3:08 PM on November 6, 2002

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