February 6, 2006

Roadside memorials.

Are there too many of them? Do they distract drivers and cause more accidents, or do they prevent accidents by reminding you that your car is a death machine? If the latter, does that make them a morbid eyesore? Did you know you could order a memorial cross ready-made (with just the right handmade look)? Is there an Establishment Clause problem?
"For us, the memorials raise serious church-state constitutional concerns because they usually feature religious symbols and are placed on state property," said Robert R. Tiernan, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., who successfully defended a Denver man arrested in 2001 after he removed a religious roadside memorial.

"I'm sympathetic to people who have faced this kind of grief," added Mr. Tiernan, whose 13-year-old son died after a car accident in 1981. "But the public space belongs to everyone, and I think it's important to honor that."
Are these memorials an aesthetic blight? Some are tasteful and new or well-tended, but others are agonizingly awful -- mylar balloons! -- and covered in grime. But in some places tradition elevates them to a level that completely transforms my response:
[R]oadside 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.
Based on this, my preference is for some rules, not about religious imagery, but about size, placement, and materials that can be used. Allow only natural materials like stone and wood that have some historical tradition and that age and weather well even when abandoned.

49 comments:

SteveR said...

I live in New Mexico and there are a lot of these memorials along the highways. Usually a small cross with flowers. I will often wonder what happened, if I don't know. One on my way to work is where a popular high school girl driving some friends to school was killed (probably because she was not wearing her seatbelt).

I understand the reasoning but I have no attachment to the hospital rooms where my parents died. I choose to remember the good places I associate with them.

Kim said...

I really don't think anything should be done about them one way or another--neither fighting them from the stand point of the first amendment (the state didn't put them there) nor from taste. I am curious about the morbidity of needing to honor the place someone died. Do people who would do this also put crosses on the granddad's favorite armchair? What if dear mom met her end in the produce section of the grocery store? I come from a family that doesn't even do funerals or burials (burn me, baby) so I'm even more insensitive than most.

Ann Althouse said...

Interesting about the armchair. Do you ever look around your own house and think there's a decent chance that there's some spot here that will be my portal to the beyond? Most likely it's your bed, you know. (Just trying to help you with your insomnia.)

Rick Lee said...

The first time I saw roadside memorials was in Costa Rica in the mid-80s. I thought it was a quaint "third world-ish" custom to see these crosses and memorials on the treacherous roads. Then they started showing up at home and I thought... "oh great... let's make West Virginia even more like a third world country". I wasn't aware until recently that this was a national phenomenon. Lately I've seen cars with memorials to loved ones on the rear windows done in stick-on lettering... just like some people put Nascar logos on their cars. It's a class/taste thing. Like Kim said, the people who do it aren't going to stop just because some people think it's gauche. No point in fighting it.

Dave said...

Agree with Rick and Kim.

Seems stupid to me but I ignore it.

SAMPLES said...

Would you regulate the placement of alcohol at memorials? Two people just died in a motorcycle crach in Anthony, NM (which is approximately 20 miles from where I live in TX), and in addition to the usual cross and flowers, someone left a bottle of whiskey--I am not kidding; this was reported on my local news station this morning.

ottotex said...

If it helps to cut the grief of losing a loved one, I'm okay with it. Put a time limit on it. Maybe three months, or even six. Then it goes away. Hopefully, the person is memorialized somewhere else, in a much nicer setting than a roadside.

Adam said...

The religious aspect of this is something I don't have a problem with -- this is one of those areas where the McConnell-esque "the government's role is to be neutral between religious and secular activities, not to keep religion out of public life" makes sense to me.

JohnTheCrank said...

Hello. I've been reading Althouse for about a year and this topic finally compelled me to post.

These tasteless memorials are all over Massachusetts. The worst ones are at the sites where teens die, usually because of something stupid they did. What to memorialize your friend? Don't leave a Teddy bear, try not drinking and driving.

If I die while driving I'll haunt anyone who sets up a roadside memorial.

Simon Kenton said...

Kim, actually for a while the state of Arizona did put them up. It was easy to understand the festive atmosphere at 18th century hangings in Britain, when I recalled how we kids had contests to see who could count the most crosses in a day, who could find the most in a single cluster, who could find a cross evoking the most harrowing narrative. That one, way back there in the ponderosas, driven into a stump; she must have been flung from a convertible and sailed right between the trunks and splatted down Right There. Seven, right at the top of the hill on the blind curve, appliqued to the rock, with the other 3 one car-length away. Even now, decades after the cross budget got out of control and they stopped the program, you can still find them way off of some of the Arizona blue roads.

In New Mexico there appear to be two general rules. You place the cross and the plastic flowers at the point of death, located as precisely as possible. Or you place them in a natural shrine, as for instance a small outcrop of sandstone deflation-hollowed to look like a supra-orbital ridge.

It interests a religious mud-head such as myself to see the hold these shrines have on educated post-Catholics. I went down to NM with an apostate Catholic friend, and we had to stop at each and every one of the floweriest and most tacky of them. You could see he was meditating something between a monograph and a coffee-table book. Another instance: I was hiking with a girlfriend, an attorney who had put all that Catholicism crap behind her. We found a little statue at one corner of a monastery property, and I pointed it out as one of many instances of the Church mastering and diverting an ancient custom. Here, what would 2300 years before have been a statue of Terminus, was a statue of the Virgin, but still functioning as a little deity of boundary. On the ground was a small cylinder of glass. I put it on the statue's hands and it reached up to her face. I said, "La Virgen del Pene de Vidrio." Wo, dude, this was not auspicious for the relationship.

37921 said...

I too wondered about hospital rooms when I read the article. And yet, I think we know why we only see these memorials at accident sites: it's because of the old folk belief that when someone dies a violent and unexpected death, their spirit (the old word was ghost) is restless. It tends to hang around the death scene for a time, as if unable to accept the loss of its corporeal body. Aren't so-called "haunted houses" usually associated with stories of violent death?

Customs surrounding death are a kind of folk religion that nobody really talks about. For example, open the obituary page of your local newspaper and look at the poems people publish about their loved ones on the anniversary of their deaths. What is their purpose? To whom are they addressed? Do we really imagine that the dead can read newspapers?

Steve Donohue said...

Doesn't this just follow the Althouse Establishment Clause principle that "old things in stone should be left alone"?

bearbee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bearbee said...

What if dear mom met her end in the produce section of the grocery store? "

The imagery has me laughing......

How about restricting memorials to biodegradables lasting no more than 2 weeks....or so...flowers, carrots...

Jake said...

The Montana Department of Highways puts up small white crosses for each person killed at that spot. If 7 were killed in an accident there, 7 crosses are installed. The State has been doing this for over 50 years.

I think the crosses effectively tell you where the dangerous spots are on the roads and to slow down, or you will become a cross.

monkeyboy said...

Monuments where pall bearers stop off is not only a Hispanic custom. Edward the Third did the same thing when he brought the body of his wife back to London (hence Charing Cross etc.)

I don't see the bad in these, there was one put up to a police officer killed during a traffic stop, and it was a reminder to me of the requirements of the job and a good reminder to the police that many in the public honored the sacrifice. I am also not comfortable with lecturing others in the athstetics of proper grief.
But I'm a practicing Catholic, so what do I know.

ShadyCharacter said...

Simon, what a nasty person you are.

bill said...

It's litter. Anyone depositing a memorial on the side of the road should be fined and the junk thrown away.

Don said...

Imagine the day your house goes on the market some grieving relative puts up a 4 foot cross and a dozen white plastic roses where a drunk driver fatally crashed into a tree on your lawn.

Don said...

And of course the tree is withing the road easement.

PatCA said...

The daily news broadcasts in CA, and I imagine elsewhere, have hyped this tacky phenomenon. Breathless multiculturalism! Public pseudo-grief!

Last night they hyped the dry winds coming today, hoping to get some whackjob to start a fire, and judging from the orange sky this morning, they were successful.

Surely these "news" people will live in hell for eternity.

Susan said...

I've lived on a busy highway for about 25 years and two people have been killed on the road near my place. One was a pedestrian who was struck across the street and his relatives put up a memorial. All I could think was thank God it wasn't on my property. I wouldn't have been able to bring myself to remove it or refuse permission to relatives if they asked. But I'd hate to have it there. Really creepy. Of course, on someone else's property I just think of them as quaint pieces of folk-art.

Cat said...

I would have to disagree with the folklorist in the article who calls it an American phenom. Remember the huge outpouring of flowers, candles, pictures and symbos (queen of hearts cards) when Princess Diana died?

There is a spot on a road near me where someone was killed 10 years ago on a motorcycle and every year they hang stuff on the fence and put candles on the road. I think it's strange that the thing people most remember about you is your death. I would rather people celebrate my birthday than my "deathday" in remembrance of me.

XWL said...

While I had a friend pursuing his MFA I suggested as an art project an impromptu memorial for a disaster that had yet to happen.

It would be performance art/street theatre with witting and unwitting participants.

This was around 99-00, after Sept 11, 2001 this idea lost much of its appeal.

(plus depending on the type of disaster, might be considered a 'threat')

Freeman Hunt said...

I think you have to be a pretty hypersensitive person to bitch about a plastic cross on the side of the freeway. Probably the same sort of person who gripes that he doesn't like the color of the neighbor's house and attends neighborhood association meetings with a typed list of covenant violations.

As long as it doesn't get out of hand with huge monuments and loads of detritus, I don't know why anyone would bother about this at all.

reader_iam said...

Oh, dear: Litter?

I think I'd prefer to view this as an "avert your eyes and tolerate" sort of thing.

A time limit makes some sense, and small-ish along with the parameters that Ann suggests seems a good compromise to me.

That said, I hope all of my loved ones know that I definitely wouldn't one put up for me.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

These tasteless memorials are all over Massachusetts. The worst ones are at the sites where teens die, usually because of something stupid they did. There's a particularly garish one a block from my office near MIT: some juiced-up kid named Orlando who smacked his car into a pole one Saturday night. Passing such displays often makes me pause (figuratively) to consider my mortality, but as far as I can tell they don't affect anyone's driving habits.

bill said...

RIA - I could have phrased that with a bit more sensitivity, but, yeah, that's I how I view most of them. If they were small or a simple cross, I'd be less severe.

But the roadside memorial is a fad out of control. Many I see have the funeral flower arrangements and large crosses. If teenagers were involved, then there is often a pile of more flowers, more crosses, teddy bears, and balloons. All of which quickly deteriorates into a pile of trash no one ever cleans up.

We have codes that restrict time and placement of weekend directional signs for new subdivisions. No reason these monuments to death can’t also be restricted.

Seven Machos said...

This is really a dumb protest. I am surprised, Professor Althouse, that you would be of two minds on this one.

The First Amendment says: " Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The State is not making a law respecting religion here. In fact, it would be PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF to prevent these symbols. Would it not?

The Montana crosses are more arguable if as they probably paid for with tax dollars. Even so, the crosses are not so much symbols of religion as they are symbols paying respect to someone who has died and gently warning others that they, too, could die in an auto accident. They are reminders to be prudent and probably effective ones. If a Jewish person dies, or an atheist, or a believer in Islam, or a Hindu, another sign could be placed.

michael a litscher said...

I am told, by a friend who's an LEO in District 3 here in Milwaukee (one of the most dangerous places in Wisconsin), that ghetto memorials are quite common in Milwaukee, and aren't nearly as asthetically pleasing as a simple cross and flowers.

howzerdo said...

I am a trustee for a cemetery, and occasionally, particularly when a young person dies or when the death is accidental or a suicide, the family members erect (and maintain) elaborate memorials that neighboring plot owners consider tacky. Sometimes we field complaints from these folks. It may even violate one of our obscure rules. What is our response? Very simple...chill out. I feel the same way about roadside memorials. Yes, they may be tacky, and no, I probably wouldn't do it. And they do seem to be a growing phenomenon around here (maybe because more people than in the past are opting for cremation with little or no memorial service and no cemetery? Just speculating). If it helps the loved ones to deal with grief, why should they be restricted? Can't we be compassionate instead of judgmental when someone is hurting? But then I grieve deeply, and I am not into death denying.
Gina

Timothy said...

I don't see an establishment clause violation, but I do think the memorials probably violate anti-dumping ordinances. And I certainly wouldn't want one in front of my house.

Synova said...

I'm with Gina.

A roadside cross isn't in my cultural heritage but why would I impose my sensibilities on people who feel the need for those memorials? At least they are *organic* tributes that come from people's hearts rather than those "X marks the spot" drunk driving signs... now *that's* tacky, not to mention exploitive... but at least it doesn't include plastic flowers and tinsel?

Is the real problem that people don't like to be reminded of death? Or is it the tackiness and seeming permanence of the very messy human crosses when we'd prefer something dignified and sterile enough to allow a measure of deniability?

Modern death is sterile. It happens mostly in hospitals. If someone dies in your house there may be a law that says forevermore every purchaser has to be informed. I've bought several houses, I'd have bought them anyway, but no one ever died in any of them.

The *thing* about someone dying in a car accident is that it is violent and unexpected, as someone mentioned, and messy, and tacky. Really desperately horrificaly tacky. And usually it's on a road that the family has to travel regularly. And every time they drive by they wonder if it was quick, or slow, if their child realized they were going to die or never saw it coming or lay there conscious with a good view of their intestines before bleeding to death.

It seems to me that they can try really hard to put this out of their mind, or they can put up a memorial and have something slightly less painful to touch on as they drive past than an ongoing need to deny someone they loved.

But what can I say... I like messy humans. I like roadside vendors and grafitti as well.

Richard said...

Aww, Ann, let's not ask for any more rules and just say we did. Okay?

Palladian said...

"But what can I say... I like messy humans. I like roadside vendors and grafitti as well."

You like grafitti on your property? Or sprayed onto the front of a local landmark building? The thing about memorials is that they go away, eventually. And in the process serve as absolutely perfect memento mori, complete with deflated mylar balloons, soggy teddy bears, exhausted candles, broken crosses, soiled plastic flowers, cardboard signs turned into pulp. Vive memor lethi: Fugit hora.

But grafitti? Ehh...

paintedgoat said...

I've miraculously survived a very serious car accident, and I cringe whenever I see a roadside memorial. It reminds me of how fragile life is and how lucky I am. That's good because it makes me slow down (literally) and appreciate my living family members. The tackiness of some of the memorials doesn't detract from their poignancy. Rather, it shows that death comes to everyone, and wealth or good taste won't make you live longer.

monkeyboy said...

So the problem is not that these exist but that they are so tacky? What an interesting judgement on another's grief.

Perhaps there wouldn't be so much concern if they were more WASPy?

Paul said...

My thought upon seeing my first glimpse of one and learning what it was, was that it doesn't belong there.
They don't.

Seven Machos said...

Paul -- Why do you get to decide? Clearly, someone else thinks they DO belong there. How come they don't get to decide? What qualifications do you have to be judge over these matters of other peoples' affection and grief?

jeff said...

Is there any part of the constitution more misunderstood and misinterpreted (by all including the Supreme Court) than the "establishment clause"?

Paul said...

Seven Machos: That is my opinion, not a decision.
Were I a legislature & Governor & court, I'd get to decide.

A graveyard pays caretakers to remove the rotted debris lying around(on top).
A taxpayer pays people to remove the same from our highways(which include right-of-ways, not just roadways and berms).
I don't want to pay for removal of other people's forgotten debris of grief and affection. Put up a shrine in your house.

Seven Machos said...

I think this thread is really interesting and I wish it had generated more interest.

I think it's important to distinguish between what our own tastes dictate and what should not be permitted by others, who have different tastes. Everyone here at Althouse, left and right, seems to be the educated, urbane, Starbuck's type (myself included). Few here would go through the trouble of making a roadside memorial, not least because we find them sort of tacky.

But so what? Others don't. Other people put a great deal of time and effort into these things. They must like them. It must help them bring MEANING to their lives. How can you possibly justify taking that meaning away from others just because it offends your refined tastes? It's absurdly snobby. The worst part is that I imagine several of the people offended by roadside markers imagine themselves to be "the people against the powerful" and all that cant.

Have a extra-foam, no-whip latte and chill out, man. Nobody's getting hurt by these memorials.

Don said...

Seven Macho: I am hurt by them if they are on or in front of my property without my permission. That would be true even if they weren't big and gaudy and ill kept. Sometimes it seems to me the size of the cross is in inverse proportion to the demonstrated spiritual life of the deceased

froggyprager said...

I think the fact that there are so many of these memorials and so many of the Althouse readers have experience with these should remind all of about the dangers of driving. We all drive too much, drive too fast, drive in bad conditions, and our roads are not safe for cars, bikes or pedestrians. Rather than fight for the right to put these up or take them down, people should put their efforts into a national movement to prevent auto accidents. Over 40,000 people killed each year is too many preventable deaths. Sorry to be such a downer but it seems very odd to me how little people seem to really care about all the serious car accidents compared to how much they care about things which are much less risky.

BG said...

People who lost someone in fatal crashes could have different opinions and discuss the matter.
For those who do not - I suggest you keep you mouth shut or try to experience it yourself.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roadside_memorial

Dave said...

I think roadside crosses have an importatnt role in America - they remind us oh how stupid we are when it comes to driving with our cell phones attached to our ears. Or driving while drunk. Or driving while applying makeup. Speed traps don't seem to be doing the job. They can't hand out traffic tickets fast enough. Driver's education sure isn't helping. So what do we do? Maybe roadside crosses have some effect, if only to slow people down who gawk at them.

PM said...

Where I live, these sick, garish displays are not the product of any southwest or ethnic tradition. The displays are put up by people who obviously need a great deal of psychological help, and just aren't going for it. A cross and flowers at milemarker 98, where little Johnny bought the farm when flattened by an eighteen wheeler? For crying out loud, why not just drag the body to the site?? I'm sick of looking at them.

Silverstar said...

PM, Judging by the callousness of your comment they are not the only ones who “obviously need a great deal of psychological help.”

Douglas said...

I think that this may actually be a survival of the age-old tradtion of marking a sacred site with a altar of some sort, which is documented in druidic religon and ,to a lesser extent, classical paganism. Although this may seem strange, it should also be noted that the idea that the site of a violent death is endowed with sacral qualities is not without precedent(note the pratice of building churches atop sites of martyrdom.)