White Lines, White Crosses: The Controversy of Roadside Memorials

by M-Gillies

Roadside memorials such as this one are a common site in many countries around the world.

After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Pont de L’Alma road tunnel in Paris (the site of her death) became a roadside memorial to the People’s Princess. An avalanche of flowers and wreaths soon became an auspicious sight at both Kensington and Buckingham Palace as the public showed the outpour of their grief for a woman whom they held in high-esteem – the Flame of Liberty located at the Pont de L’Almas’ north end became the unofficial memorial to her legacy and a roadside memorial marker to her tragedy. Since that day, the urban shrine has only grown in popularity.

Today, it isn’t uncommon to see highways/freeways and major roads lined with white-crosses, flowers, trinkets and messages – these are what have become known as spontaneous shrines in honor of those who had died in a road crash. While their history can be traced back to ancient Greece, when shrines built to pagan gods were constructed along well-traveled paths for evening travellers to take a brief moment of rest and prayerful reflection, the usage of roadside  memorial markers has been recognized as a new phenomenon.

Taking its tradition from early Hispanic settlers of the Southwestern United States, the contemporary roadside memorial evolved from Hispanic funerary processions known as descanso. As the funeral procession carried the coffin from the church to a graveyard, bearers would be inclined to take a moment of rest. It would be during this time that the bearers would place a cross to mark the spot where the coffin was set down in memory of the event – in a similar vein, the practice of roadside memorials has become a commemoration of the last place a person was alive before their fatal injury, and their appearing in greater numbers.

From simple to elaborate, makeshift or permanent, roadside memorials have become public markers of private trauma and grief. They tell the story of a life taken too soon – they have become personal statements bearing witness to a life lost and they act as a memento to others both to offer a moment of quiet reflection on the significance of the fragility of a persons life, and as a heeded warning of dangers we have become too complacent in noticing.

Even New York City has seen an influx with memorial markers lining the streets, in the form of Ghost Bikes to commemorate both cyclists and pedestrians who have been killed on New York City streets – an initiative created by The Street Memorial Project.

However, while these memorials are usually private rather than public, there are laws that can restrict roadside memorials from being created. But that isn’t the only thing that is standing in the way of the contemporary roadside memorial. In fact, highway officials in the United States have claimed that too many roadside memorials can become distracting and dangerous – these complaints often stemming in regards to the permanent or near permanent shrines. But it isn’t the wreaths or flowers being placed on the anniversary of an accident that are stirring up the controversy, but rather the religious messages being conveyed through the use of a cross.

In recent news, many atheist activists have petitioned to have states regulate the use of roadside memorials, ensuring that all religious symbology be removed and restricted from being placed on state property. But it isn’t only in the United States where roadside memorials have been a controversial topic.

Russian officials have been addressing the usage of roadside memorials for car crash victims for some time now, and have even made a federal law which can count setting roadside memorials, wreaths or crosses as an administrative offence, further implementing a ban on roadside memorials and eliminating current ones.

Meanwhile in South Africa, warnings have been given that the practice of erecting a roadside memorial could have equally devastating and fatal consequences for motorists as the South African National Roads Agency states that roadside memorials, including plaques, crosses and wreaths can pose a safety threat to other motorists traveling the roads through distractions.

As the state of Colorado pointed out during a court matter involving roadside memorials, it was said, because it is public ground and not private, and further no authorization or permission was given to place a memorial on state property it is then seen as abandoned property.

While the primary purpose of a roadside memorial is to mark the death of a loved one in a tragic incident, encouraging awareness of potential dangers and further giving an outlet for loved ones to grieve, states like Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Colorado have banned the use of such memorials, while California requires residents to pay a state fee of $1000.

When it comes to roadside memorials, because each state, city and country imposes different laws for the use of roadside memorials, it is often best to first check with the city by-laws on the regulations of erecting a roadside memorial. However, with many officials and citizens deeming them inappropriate for public property, it has been recommended that any kind of memorial be placed only on public property.


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