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Roadside Memorial

The New York Times recently had an article on the proliferation of roadside memorials, which indeed seem to dot — if not now, then soon will be — each and every mile of America's highways and byways.

Roadside Memorial

Usually DIY affairs crafted out of crosses, balloons, teddy bears, flowers and Ziplocked photos but now can also be purchased commercially from online sources such as, they are the very intimiate and very public lamentations for loved ones killed in auto accidents. They mark and sanctify where death had occured.

“Something happened in American culture when the Vietnam Wall went up and there was an outpouring of offerings in front of it that no one was expecting. It became more acceptable to express personal grief in these public areas.”

Roadside Memorial

But those expecting Varanasises to start materializing alongside the Lincoln Highway or L.I.E. or the Dan Ryan Express or some other concrete Ganges meandering through the American landscape may have to temper their daydreams for a bit, as anything in the US that rests on some mercurial internal logic, such as memorializing our dearly departed, will invite twitchy, bureaucratic fingers to rein all of that in with central, regulatory control.

Take for instance Montana and California. While they don't object to memorials, they only allow them “if alcohol was a factor in the crash.” Wisconsin and New Jersey, meanwhile, “limit how long the memorials can remain in place.” And “Florida, Colorado and Texas will erect a nonreligious marker at the scene of a death. Missouri allows memorials but encourages victims' families to participate in the state's adopt-a-highway program instead.”

Also, “Delaware is taking a different approach, establishing a memorial park near a highway exit in hopes of discouraging the roadside shrines. The park will include a reflection pool and red bricks — provided free to the loved ones of highway accident victims — with names inscripted to honor the dead.”

Still, parts of the US are quite receptive: “Often called descansos, a Spanish word for 'resting places,' roadside 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.”

Roadside Memorial

A few things:

1) It's only a matter of time (if not already) before roadside memorials become as iconic as the Land Survey grid, the gas station and the clover-leaf highway interchange — that is, a crucial part of the parageographic experience of the American landscape.

2) We should definitely reinstitute the ancient practice of siting cemeteries along traffic arteries: the celebration of death again a part of daily life. Besides the occasional shuttered malls, exuberant auto dealerships, and monolithic grain elevators, the ride up to Chicago from points southern can be intensely boring, even the political billboards and “Adult” signage have lost their amusement value after several passes.

But what if Interstate 57 looks decidedly Roman or Subcontinental — or imagine a hysterical combination of a Hindu cremation ritual, a New Orleans jazz funeral march, Jim Crace's quivering, and a High Baroque Requiem mass plus the nonstop visual, aromatic and aural assault from this thanatological mixture. The drive can be much livelier, in other words.

Roadside Memorial

3) Why not a pyramid or a baker's tomb or statues in relief and in the round or an Eisenman or the winning entry in the Annual International Roadside Memorial Student Design Competition?

4) In a hundred years or in the next decade, pilgrimage routes crisscrossing the country will be very much well-established with all the varying roadside caravansaries stitched scenographically together — a tourist circuit populated by fans of vernacular America and by readers of Roadside(memorial)

Roadside America
  • Anonymous
  • February 8, 2006 at 5:55:00 PM CST
  • "besides the occasional shuttered malls, exuberant auto dealerships, monolithic grain elevators"

    Hey, now wait a minute. Those things are already memorials, and you've missed a beat! ______

    Think of the young Bill Bryson careening around Iowa with his kitchen-match grenades. Not in relation to any roadside fatalities he may have caused, but in relation to all the palaces of wonder that have died a death since that time, and which now stand mute, in testimony to the days of bench-seat Buicks and the panorama of American highways. ______

    It's a case of two needs satisfying each other. Roadside America neeeds its attractions back, while martyred pilgrims of the highway need a dignified place of rest. So, those shuttered shops, those haunted dealerships, and those concrete hexaliths become mausolea for a restless, ever-drivin' nation. You think New Orleans is necroplis by another name? Well, just wait til those Illinois landscape architects get to work on this project.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • February 8, 2006 at 6:37:00 PM CST
  • Very, very true. They are already memorials.

    So then maybe they ARE mausolea of martyred pilgrims: shuttered malls as cryptoriums, grain elevators as ossuaries, and left-over wreckage as coffins parked in disused auto dealerships. And not merely a memorial to inorganic academic concepts. Rather actual corpses entombed. Real rotting dead bodies. A linear, thinly gerrymandered necropolis along the entire length of the American intercontinental highway system. And not simply "occasional."

  • e-tat
  • February 9, 2006 at 1:27:00 PM CST
  • Okay, you've compelled me to muck around with this a bit longer. But there's no promise anything more substantial will come of it!

    Two things:
    One, Sampson's work comes across as a heartfelt reflection on the deaths of many individuals. So nothing I say should be taken as dismissive of that. (The caveat is because I know too many people that just can't fathom anything but direct and literal meanings.) It is more compelling because the memorials reflect an individualist paradigm that runs through so much of American life. So ideas about less personal responses (names on bricks, for example) seem inadequate.

    Two, there's already a philosophy of remembrance out there for the picking.

    Three, I hate blogger comment-editor!

  • Anonymous
  • February 9, 2006 at 1:30:00 PM CST
  • In Italy they are called "Altarini". little altars.

  • e-tat
  • February 9, 2006 at 1:34:00 PM CST
  • fucked-up blogger comment editor does it again. They could do a wysiwyg editor for that function. But do they?

    Here is the link that got chopped

  • Anonymous
  • February 9, 2006 at 10:07:00 PM CST
  • call me heartless, but I see these things as litter and I'd mow them all down. Everyone dies, why is it special if your loved one died in a car crash?

  • Anonymous
  • May 29, 2006 at 3:25:00 PM CDT
  • I see some of them to be trashy, like when they put every thing but the kitchen sink by the raod. I don't se anythin wrong with puting up a cross with thiere name on it. But when you put the cross flowers and some other things out all out in one small place it's just trash. Sorry if that afends you but it's the truth.

  • Anonymous
  • March 2, 2008 at 11:05:00 AM CST
  • call you heartless? I'd call you more than that. You see roadside memorials as litter. So let's see here, your problem with them is aesthetic? You think they "look trashy". And everyone dies, right. Right. Now lets say you're driving down a highway and you are rear-ended by a speeding teenager. Both vehicles are overturned and your four year old son is violently killed. You are not allowed to hold him or see him because you are so badly injured you are being airlifted to a hospital. Could you understand why there might be a cross put up to mark the spot of a tragic and untimely death, maybe a cross with someone's favorite stuffed animal? You think that it looks trashy. Did you know that the survivors of these accidents risk their lives to clean up and repair these memorials, while people like you smirk, think about how trashy they look, and speed by as you flick your cigarette butt out the window. I hope you are never touched by such a tragedy. The memorials aren't only part of the process of grieving-- If you see more and more lining the highways, could that have something to do with more speeding, reckless, and aggressive driving? That is what the memorials are there for. To mark the spot of a needless violent death caused more often than not by something we all do on a daily basis. SPEED. They are there to remind you of that, slow you down, and keep you from the same fate. So keep smirking, mocking other people's tragic deaths, and keep on speeding..:)

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