Thursday, May 05, 2005

Descano: A Roadside Memorial


Well, I certainly feel stupid! I misread Neil's post. Goin back over it, it turns out that he was offering an opportunity to comment on an EARLIER STORY by Victoria Hansen and Jeff Davidson aired at 10PM on the 4th. That's OK, go read it, too.

Neil Orne of Nashville's Channel 2 News has been working on a story on roadside memorials. Not having seen it yet, I don't know where he is headed with it. However, from some of the comments on his blog it appears that there are many people opposed to them for a variety of reasons, and some supportive of them.

The reason that I find this interesting is that several years ago I had a strange experience. Driving along a secondary road in northern California while on vacation, I came across an unusual sight. On the road surface was the outline of a human form, reminiscent of the chalk outline of a body at a crime scene. A bit further down the road, I came across another! This time I stopped and investigated. There on the road surface, in green paint, was the outline of a human body. Over the course of about thirty miles of road I observed more of these. Later I questioned several local residents, and all denied any knowledge of the images. To this day I do not know if these were simply unusual roadside memorials, or a prank. However, it set me to thinking about roadside memorials, and I came up with what I thought was a new and fascinating idea: a book about roadside memorials. My intention was to find and photograph these memorials, then track down survivors of the deceased for interviews about their reasoning and motives for creating and maintaining the memorials. These stories and photographs were then going to be published in a large format hardcover book.

After mulling over this project for about a year, one day I had the bright idea (picture very large light bulb over my head) of doing a Google search to see if any relevant information was available. To my surprise and chagrin, this idea was far from new. It turns out that not only were there many more memorials than I had imagined (examples here, here, here, and here), but that many people had already posted photographs and stories on the internet. It also turned out that these roadside memorials and Internet sites dedicated to them were not an American phenomenon. Examples are found from Ireland, Mexico, Australia, and many others.


Roadside memorials are frequently associated with Latino cultures. This excerpt from DESCANSOS: ROADSIDE MEMORIALS ON THE AMERICAN HIGHWAY explains the term:

"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.

In the United States, some states attempt to regulate roadside memorials, with West Virginia as an example. Poynteronline published a column in 2003 dealing with the issue, stating that:

Stateline.org has this list of state laws on roadside memorials. "Here's a sampling of roadside memorial rules across the states:

· Colorado, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin (new law) regulate/prohibit roadside memorials.
· West Virginia allows roadside memorials, but permits transportation officials to remove them without notice if the markers are deemed a safety hazard or interfere with regular highway maintenance. The state of West Virginia posts its guidelines online.
· New York leaves it up to municipalities to implement rules.
· In California, roadside memorials are allowed for victims killed in a crash involving alcohol or drugs, and victims' families must pay the state a fee of $1,000.
· Missouri does not allow roadside memorials but encourages victims' families to participate in the state's adopt-a-highway program, which recognizes victims with a sign. The families sign a three-year agreement to clean litter from and maintain the landscape at their adopted site.
· Texas and Florida allow only state-funded uniform memorials that can be applied for by contacting the departments of Transportation. Florida memorials are plain white, bear the victim's name and read 'Drive Safely.'
· And New Mexico residents can purchase a sign from the state for $200 that will remain in place for one year. But officials also said crosses and personal markers that inevitably dot the roads are permitted 'as long as they don't pose a nuisance' to highway workers.


Although I can only offer anecdotal evidence here, there is/was at least one individual who carried his roadside memorial antipathy to what I consider extremes. This individual offered to destroy/remove any roadside memorial that was submitted to his website. I distinctly remember reading the website when I was doing my research, but cannot find any reference to it at the moment.


Personally, I’m very supportive of roadside memorials. I feel that any possible hazard associated with them, and problems caused to roadside maintenance crews, is inconsequential. Obviously, there are many strongly held and expressed opinions here, and I am curious to see where Neil goes with his story. Another very obvious point is that my idea for a book project was a day late and a dollar short.