Saturday, November 15, 2008

Roadside Memorials

November 2008

Photo: Stephen Chalmer

HOCKESSIN, Del. — Once a week, Lyn Forester gets down on her knees, clears the cigarette butts, candy wrappers and beer cans away from the base of a stark wooden cross and holds a quiet vigil for her daughter, who was killed here in a car accident eight years ago.
Her ankles dangling from the curb as tractor-trailers hurtle past just feet away, Mrs. Forester says she knows it is both dangerous and illegal to visit this three-foot-wide median along Highway 141 near Wilmington, Del. But she cannot stay away.
"This is where my daughter's spirit was last," Mrs. Forester said, straightening up the plastic flowers and Christmas tree cuttings potted at the base of the shrine for her daughter, Jenni. "I'm more drawn to this spot than I am even to the cemetery where we keep her remains."
Roadside memorials like Mrs. Forester's have become so numerous, and so distracting and dangerous, highway officials say, that more and more states are trying to regulate them. Some, like Montana and California, allow the memorials, but only if alcohol was a factor in the crash. Others, like Wisconsin and New Jersey, limit how long the memorials can remain in place.
Now, in a move that is being watched by other states, Delaware is taking a different approach, establishing a memorial park near a highway exit in hopes of discouraging the roadside shrines. The park will include a reflection pool and red bricks — provided free to the loved ones of highway accident victims — with names inscripted to honor the dead.
Often called "descansos," a Spanish word for "resting places," roadside memorials are most common in the American Southwest. Most researchers believe they descend from a Spanish tradition in which pallbearers left stones or crosses to mark where they rested as they carried a coffin by foot from the church to the cemetery. Because of this heritage, the memorials are protected in New Mexico as "traditional cultural properties" by the state's Historic Preservation Division.
Sylvia Grider, a folklorist and anthropologist at Texas A&M University who has studied the history of the memorials, said their rising popularity in the United States was part of a growing acceptance of public mourning.
"Something happened in American culture when the Vietnam Wall went up and there was an outpouring of offerings in front of it that no one was expecting," Ms. Grider said. "It became more acceptable to express personal grief in these public areas."

WINNIPEG - For those grieving the death of a loved one, usually in a traffic accident, a roadside memorial is more than a collection of teddy bears and candles. It's sacred ground. But for many others, the make-shift shrines are eyesores and dangerous distractions that need an expiration date.
The emotional issue of whether time limits should be imposed on public grieving has landed squarely at the door of Canadian municipalities. The Toronto-area suburb of Vaughan has proposed keeping an inventory of memorials and requiring that they be taken down after a year.
Calgary has commissioned an academic study to determine how people feel about the shrines and whether they affect driver behaviour. Officials in Prince Albert, Sask., were criticized this summer for considering a policy that would require a memorial be taken down three months after a person's death.
Now Winnipeg is reviewing the rules about how long remembrances of a departed friend or family member should stay in place. Community discussion boards are abuzz with debates about whether it's appropriate to put candles, crosses and flowers by the side of roads. One blogger has argued that such memorials are a good reminder to drive carefully. Another finds them "distasteful to the max."
The person with the latter view wrote: "I have asked my loved ones to ensure that no such memorial goes up in the event that I die an untimely death. A tombstone in a cemetery somewhere will suffice for me."
Still another voice: "People grieve in their own ways, and it doesn't really hurt me to let them. I'm willing to overlook an eyesore if it's helping someone get over the loss. How selfish is it not to?" -from The Candaian Press. for the full text, visit-
Wyoming's State Sponsored Roadside Memorials

LARAMIE, Wyoming: In a small storage shed tucked behind a highway maintenance facility in Wyoming, dozens of monuments to the state's dead motorists lie stacked against one another like discarded props from an old movie set waiting to be used again.
Some are made from wood, others from steel bars or wire, but all the memorials are vestiges of a new statewide effort to remove them from public roads.
"I think they would make a remarkable art exhibit," said Ross Doman, a public liaison officer for the State Department of Transportation, running his hands over a large wooden cross bearing the name of Monte Robbins, who was killed nearly a decade ago on an interstate highway east of Laramie.
Wyoming started enforcing a ban on roadside memorials more than five years ago, after they began appearing so often that transportation officials felt they could distract and obstruct drivers in a dangerous way.
Bob Jaure, a maintenance area supervisor, remembers the midsummer night two years ago when he was called to a gruesome scene along an interstate highway east of the town of Sinclair, in the south-central part of the state. A trucker, Slavik Gutsuliak, had drifted off the road and skidded down an embankment. The truck caught fire and was incinerated before Gutsuliak could escape. A few months later, a charcoal-hued headstone appeared in the median near where Gutsuliak had died. It bore a painting of a youthful face and the words, "We love, we remember, we grieve," inscribed in Russian.
Under the removal policy, the headstone was taken down and has been sitting in the back of a nearby transportation station ever since. A victim's family, in claiming a monument, can then ask the Transportation Department to affix near the crash site a wooden post attached to a small sign of a broken heart and a white dove. The department has offered to put up these public memorials without cost and leave them up for five years, at which point a family can choose to have a new sign erected for a one-time fee of $50.
So far, there have been 282 requests for public memorials, but not everyone agrees that they suffice. Kerry Shatto's son Shane died at the age of 19 in one of the state's most notorious accidents. He and seven other University of Wyoming cross-country runners were killed after a drunken driver plowed into their Jeep Wagoneer on a two-lane highway 17 miles, or 28 kilometers, south of here in 2001. A week later, Shatto built a cross six feet, or more than one meter and 80 centimeters, tall, with the eight runners' first names inscribed. He planted the sign at the site of the accident. Fellow runners strung their sneakers around the cross, others left medals they had won at meets, and the memorial was featured in Sports Illustrated.
Last month, the Transportation Department told Shatto it would be taken down. "I wanted to keep these boys alive in people's minds whenever they went by that spot," Shatto said. "It feels like they're being killed all over again." Shatto, who has since picked up the memorial, said he planned to ask about replanting the cross on private property that abuts the accident site.
Doman, the Transportation Department liaison, said he understood Shatto's grief. He helped pry the cross from the ground. At first, the department had planned to keep the memorials for only six months. Now, it will try to hold on to them until they are picked up, as long as that may be.
"It would be pretty difficult to throw these away," Doman said.


Quimbob said...

What's the difference between Delaware's memorial garden and a cemetery? As Mrs Forester states, it's the last location the person was alive.
This one was interesting because it was on private property. It belonged to a cemetery.

GMH said...

I have always been curious as to why traffic fatalities are viewed differently from all others. For instance, people typically don't erect a cross or other memoriam at the spot where a person suffered a heart attack. A makeshift shrine may be placed where a brutal murder took place, but after a few days it is gone.

A person is no more dead when they die in a car wreck than when they die by other means; the pain can be just intense no matter what the cause.

As a Christian, the importance to me is not where the spirit last was, but where it is now. I have read several people's comments that they "feel" the presence of their lost family member at the sight of the car accident more than anywhere else. To me it is sad to think a spirit is doomed to hanging by the side of a busy interstate, rather than being in a peaceful state of existence. And again, why is it that this idea is so strongly held by the families of car crash victims, as opposed to other accidents, homicides, suicides, or organic disease?

I am sympathetic for their loss, but the dangers of making and maintaining a roadside memorial - not only for the family, but for passers-by in general - certainly have to be considered. And ultimately, gawdy, sun-bleached, artificial flowers are not the way I want to have a loved on remembered.

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