Roadside Memorials


Catholic Tradition of Roadside Memorials

The contemporary roadside memorial takes its roots from centuries’ old Catholic tradition, ubiquitous in areas with large Hispanic populations, including Spain, Mexico and the American Southwest.

Known to Mestizo people, (those of Spanish and Indian blood), the Catholic funeral procession to the cemetery would begin after an animal passed in front of the deceased’s home, as it was believed that the animal announced the arrival of an angel to guide and lead the deceased’s soul to heaven. During the procession, the “descanso”, or place of rest, was where pallbearers had stopped to rest as they carried a coffin by foot from the church to the cemetery. On these resting spots (descansos), stones or crosses were left to mark the event.

Mexico and Latin American Roadside Memorials

Today it is custom among Mexicans and other Latin Americans to place a cross where a family member was killed, either in a motor-vehicle accident or by an act of violence. Each year on the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), the family will put flowers on these roadside crosses. Although the Catholic Church doesn't require them, people put them up out of their own devotion. These roadside shrines are a commemoration for families and remind others to drive carefully and or pray for those who have died.

Greek Influences on Roadside Memorials

In ancient Greece, shrines to pagan gods were built along well-traveled paths for purpose of providing evening travelers with candlelight and a moment of rest and prayerful reflection. Some roadside shrines took on the appearance of miniature chapels, sometimes with interior spaces large enough to hold small ceremonies. One popular chapel stands at the end of the harbor as a place for last-minute prayers of sailors heading into the often-rough waters of the central Aegean sea.

Poland's Influence on Roadside Memorials

In Poland wayside shrines, religious figures, crosses, statues, or buildings resembling a little house or miniature chapel along the roadside.

Princess Diana Roadside Memorial (Shrine)

In 1997, the custom found its way to the London, England where it was adopted in another outpouring of public grief following the death of Princess Diana of Whales. Mourners left a mountain of flowers and wreaths at the Pont de Alma road tunnel in Paris, France, where her car accident occurred as well as in front of Buckingham Palace.

Since Princess Diana’s roadside memorial, the urban shrine has become popular in the United Kingdom, though it has also sparked debate over the safety of erecting memorials (some jurisdictions have outlawed the practice.)


Unique Purpose of Roadside Memorials

Roadside memorials serve a different purpose than the traditional memorial headstone or obituary. They alert all passersby that somebody died at that specific location. They are often created as reminders of fatalities from automobile accidents or drive by shootings. They are not erected for those who died of natural causes, at home, or in hospitals. In the state of Maryland, the "Department of Transportation in 2004, estimated that markers were erected after 10% – 20% of all fatal crashes."

Wayside Shrines - Hallowed Ground

To those who know of its significance, the location becomes hallowed ground. Often family will prefer to mourn or deliver flowers at the location of the accident over visitation to the place of burial. Some believe the place of death has more significance because it holds a connection to the spirit of the deceased; the spirit was there last, so family will visit that spot.

Roadside Memorials Honors Lost Loved Ones

Most roadside displays are usually constructed or created by family and friends of the deceased, and items are not products purchased from the funeral home or cemetery. Some items that can be found at roadside memorials are: candles, flowers, wreaths, photographs, messages, decorated rocks, shells, cigarettes, sea shells, crosses, framed pictures, hearts, doves, American flags, tinsel, prayer cards, ribbons, whirligigs, pinwheels, shoes, hats, school insignia, medals, trophies, nicknames of the deceased, hand written notes, memorabilia, etc. In the event of youth’s death, sometimes the tribute is a spray-painted message on the black top, asphalt, or a nearby wall. Or as is shown in this photograph, the family decorated this memorial with bowling gear.

Perpetual Care of the Roadside Memorial

Another difference between a typical gravesite and a roadside memorial is that the perpetual care does not exist for the roadside memorial. The roadside memorial must be maintained by family and friends of the deceased. Survivors often risk their lives to clean up and repair their memorials after bad weather or time take their effects. You will often see roadside memorials refreshed annually on the anniversary of an accident, or annually on the deceased’s birthday. Flowers will be changed out, trash or other debris will be removed, and sometimes photos that have become bleached out by sunlight or otherwise weathered will be replaced. As you can see in these images, these families decorated the memorials for Christmas time and then updated them when Summer began.

Traveling Roadside Memorials and Vehicle Memorial Tributes

Traveling Memorials are taking the traditional Roadside Memorial in a new direction. The image at right is a traveling Veteran's Memorial called "Field of Honor" put on by the Veterans of Oregon. This photo was taken in Sandy, Oregon.

From the Veterans of Oregon website: The Field of Honor is a traveling memorial consisting of 1,000 flags, all of which have been previously flown over our nation’s capital. Each flag pole will contain nameplates of veterans who served in the armed forces. Veterans, friends, or family members of a veteran can have a nameplate added to a flag in the Field of Honor.

Personal Vehicle Memorial Messages

We see more and more of these personal memorial messages on vehicles as families share the loss of their loved ones on their automobiles. Most often these are custom stickers pasted on the back window, although some are painted by hand.

Roadside Memorials are Reminders - Please Drive Safely

A Warning to Passersby

The roadside memorial serves a variety of purposes. Firstly, they serve as reminders to motorists to slow down and or to watch for pedestrians, children playing, or bicyclists. Drivers viewing the memorial for the first time are likely more affected than regular commuters, and might be more likely to change their behavior when nearing these intersections where the memorial stands out.

Roadside Memorials - An Extension of the Grief Process

The roadside memorial also supports the family and friends of the deceased. Families want others in the community to remember what happened and a roadside memorial becomes a daily reminder to all who see it. Additionally, getting together at the place of death to decorate it, aids the healing process for those involved. Roadside memorials have become a grassroots method for communities to share their grief publicly.

Roadside Memorials Influence Legislature

Sometimes candlelight vigils are held at the site of a roadside memorial to accomplish the purpose of getting the attention of a city or government body, as part of an outcry for civic safety improvements at a particular stretch of highway or location, or to reduce the speed limit.

The Ghost Bicycle Phenomenon

Ghost Bike/Ghost Bicycle and Ghost Stroller roadside memorials are decorated bicycles and strollers left at places around the city where bicyclists or babies were involved in a fatal traffic accident. The memorial bicycles or strollers are painted entirely white, and secured to nearby poles as a symbolic reminder of death at the site. This European influenced memorial practice now appears in the United States, as seen in Portland, Oregon (above photos) and throughout the nation, where spontaneous shrines in the form of white painted bicycles/strollers are erected.

Critics of Roadside Memorials

Not everyone is in support of roadside memorials. One point of view, is that if everyone dies, why should one who dies on a roadway be commemorated more vigorously than anyone else who died another way. Other complaints usually stem from memorials that need tending, where unappealing soggy teddy bears, deflated balloons, and bleached out photographs have become eyesores. Other opponents believe roadside memorials infringe on public spaces, and that memorials are for cemeteries not highways. Some people find Roadside Memorials hazardous when too close to the roadway.

Others oppose religious symbols placed on public property. The Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis., says their group opposes the religious overtones of the memorials, as well as the potential road hazard they could create. "We can all feel sorrow about a roadside accident, but do we have to be preached at every time we drive by?"

Another argument is that the memorials are a distraction to drivers. City and county officials do not want things on the roadsides that could cause a crash. City waste disposal companies typically allow these displays to become completely dilapidated before they are removed. It is a grey spot where displays are sometimes considered by highway officials to be nuisances, or even dangerous because shrines are often left unattended for long periods of time or indefinitely.

Are Roadside Memorials Legal?

Roadside Memorial Laws

There's no national law governing roadside memorials, therefore states regulators are allowed to define their own rules when it comes to roadside memorials.

Roadside Memorial State Laws

Although officials are reluctant to tell people how to mourn or to remove the memorials, some states have made laws to govern roadside memorials. Some states have incorporated state approved signs to be erected at the site of the roadside fatality. Colorado had so many instances of vandalism that the state unveiled a standardized blue sign last year with the simple message: "Please drive safely" and the victim's name. Wyoming had school kids design an official state memorial sign. Florida and Washington allow only state-sanctioned markers. Florida and Texas will erect markers at the scene of the death. Montana adds white crosses at the site of the crash which is meant to signify the number of victims the crash claimed. Families of the victims often embellish the crosses with flowers and other decorations (see image below). Also, Montana allows roadside memorials only in cases of alcohol related accidents. Missouri allows memorials but encourages victim families to participate in the state’s adopt-a-highway program instead. Utah plans to ban memorials later this year, and offer to plant wildflowers or erect a state-approved sign.

Montana Roadside Memorial Embellished with Roller Skates Montana Roadside Memorial with Roller Skates Some states encourage roadside memorials with or without a designated time period. In May of this year, the city of Norton, Massachusetts, imposed a 30-day limit on roadside shrines. New Jersey and Wisconsin limit the period of time that memorials can remain up. Alaska and West Virginia have statutes that encourage memorials and the state of New Mexico protects roadside memorials as “traditional cultural properties” by the state’s Historic Preservation Division.

Some states have completely banned and begun clearing roadside memorials. In 2004, Minnesota cracked down on memorials, clearing interstates and freeways of public shrines. In Nevada, the issue came to a head after state highway officials, threatened with a lawsuit, removed an 8-foot, steel cross from U.S. Highway 50 near Carson City. North Carolina and Oregon, prohibit the shrines. In California, where the shrines are also banned, residents may be required to pay a state fee of $1,000 per incidence. Alabama roadside memorials are being removed from interstate highways.

Delaware is the first state to begin constructing its own state-maintained memorial garden. Roadside memorials are so popular in the state of Delaware that it hopes its new garden made with engraved memorial bricks, will control the memorializing of highway deaths. Delaware has also enacted a law imposing a $25 fine for unauthorized use of state roadways. Thus far, 22 states have similar “unauthorized use” legislation, and the number has more than doubled in the last five years.

From the State of Delaware's Community Programs and Services Page on the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden website:

Located on the grounds of the Smyrna Rest Area, the 11,000 square foot garden is a creative blend of native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants. The garden’s pathway is outlined with bricks engraved with the names of individuals who give the garden its character and significance. The Delaware Highway Memorial Garden is embodied by the slogan, “Our Garden Of Love, Peace, Healing, and Remembrance” chosen by the grief support group known as The Compassionate Friends-Brandywine Hundred Chapter.