Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Roadside memorials

Roadside memorials (descansos, as they are known in the American southwest) are those impromptu shrines that take shape at the site of a sudden unexpected death, usually a car accident, but sometimes in front of a house where a murder has occurred. They are an outlet for the outpouring of grief that family, friends, and concerned citizens experience at the loss. But after they have been rained on, they become a bit of an eyesore - bedraggled stuffed animals, weathered photos, ink-splotched notes. Sometimes the memorials are maintained by redecorating them for the holidays or on special occasions. But the issue of their permanence has been raised in many communities.

By marking the location of an individual's death on a highway, a roadside memorial warns other drivers to take care - but it may also distract them, thus possibly causing an accident it was hoped to prevent. Safety issues posed by the memorials are a big concern in the U.K., which cites the risks to pedestrians who cross major highways and stand in medians to add to the memorials. Some municipalities remove the makeshift shrines and offer other permanent alternatives like erecting a permanent sign or planting a tree. Delaware has established a memorial garden near an exit to try to discourage placing the shrines on the highway. Another issue is the placement of the memorials on private property. In Rusk County, Texas, the family of a boy attacked and killed by dogs was asked by the property-owners to remove a memorial after 4 months. If placed on public land, roadside memorials may be the target of vandals or those who object to the religious symbolism.

Oddly enough, the creation of roadside memorials predates the invention of the car. In America, they sprang up in shop windows after the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. Roadside crosses originated with the early Hispanic settlers, who placed a cross at each location that pallbearers stopped to rest on the way to the grave. In New Mexico, descansos are not protected by state law, but road crews avoid destroying them out of courtesy. Minnesota implemented a program clearing the memorials from the highways. Washington and Florida allow only state-sanctioned markers. Residents of California and Montana are allowed to place roadside memorials, but only if alcohol was a factor in the crash. New Jersey limits how long memorials may remain in place. Only West Virginia and Alaska encourage memorials. In Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin, they are banned altogether. While some people are busy tearing them down, others are documenting them in photographs and on websites.

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