In observing another Memorial Day, what can be said about the current state of public remembrances so prevalent in American society? The never-forget-the-dead trend so popular in recent years is permeating daily life in cities, villages and rural areas — but how did this form originate — and why?
It’s not just the immediate heaping collections of stuffed animals, flowers, notes and lit candles at the locations of house fires, murders or suspected crimes of violence, although these accrue sooner than the news crews covering the stories.
They also defy logic, tending instead to beg the question, “Why don’t the strangers who leave such sacrifices instead donate them to a hospital or contribute to a charity that might actually benefit mankind in honor of the deceased?”
America can’t seem to get enough of such visual triggers nor of the makeshift altars created at the scene of every crime or sad place of news.
Arthur Jipson, director of the Criminal Justice Studies Program at the University of Dayton, studied the roadside-shrine phenomenon for nine years. He contends on a 2009 New York Times blog that Mothers Against Drunk Driving views such public displays of grief as a means to “help society cope with automobile-related death and injury and remind drivers to be mindful of potentially dangerous stretches of highway.”
Of the more than 300 people he interviewed who built and maintained roadside shrines, 75 percent were women, and 60 percent were mothers, sisters or wives of the accident victims, Jipson says.
Still, it’s makeshift roadside or neighborhood memorials designating fatal car crashes that are growing across the nation — as well as the ever-growing use of car decals citing the loss of a loved one in death-notice detail. Each has also spawned repeated parallel behavior from coast to coast as well as supports viable businesses.
Roadside memorials seemed to have arrived first. Grieving with the sudden death of a friend or family member, people began to erect small crosses at the scene of traffic incidents. The remembrances often sport plastic or silk flowers and other memorabilia, including letters or other messages to follow the dead into the next realm.
Nevertheless, it’s a sobering reminder when rounding a curve or marking miles traveled that someone else wasn’t so lucky as to reach a destination.
Believed to have begun in the Southwest in some Hispanic communities, crosses mark the resting spots, or descansos, where coffin-bearers stop for a breather and rest the remains while en route from a church to a graveyard. The tradition was also repeated in the southern U.S.as a means to recall the last actual place a loved one was alive before sudden or unexpected death.
The memorials also have significance overseas. The most formal might be found in the Ukraine, which offers marble or granite monuments at death sites, with imbedded photos of the departed and fresh-flower wreaths.
But, how do the authorities view makeshift memorials? There are several official positions, from the push to outlaw them to urging surviving families to invest in more meaningful reminders — and several positions in between. Subsequent press coverage has focused on some memorials being tolerated by government agencies, while others are taken down or ordered to be removed.
The predominant problem seems to center on which are distractions or impediments to other drivers, or present problems in maintaining road areas adjacent to the memorials.
Some laws allow survivors to erect memorials, but require that they be maintained or that only state-manufactured signs be used. By turning shrines into reminders to have other drivers proceed carefully, professionally prepared signs carry specific messages, such as “Please Drive Safely,” “Please Buckle Up” or “Don’t Drink and Drive.”
Usually requests for such signs must be made within a designated aftermath of the victim’s death and can only be ordered by the immediate family, must be paid for (in the range of $200 each), and can only be ordered if the victim was not at fault in the crash. A specific time is allotted for the sign’s ability to be displayed, and sometimes it can be renewed, but after that, the sign is removed and returned to the family.
Although some states have pending legislation, others have no plans, and still others have their Department of Transportation remove homemade shrines as obstructions and potential safety hazards, there are clearly many that escape the watchful eye of the law.
For deaths caused within 30 days of an auto accident, the U.S. census statistics state that the number of the fatalities actually dropped between 1990 and 2009. According to their source, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1990, traffic fatalities stood at 44,599, but by 2009, had decreased to 33,808.
In Michigan, 1999 tracked more than 1,500 fatalities but that was almost halved by ’09, with 871 — and fatality rates went from 1.9 to 0.9. One online source estimates that a fatality occurs on our roads on the average of every 13 minutes. That is a lot of roadside memorials, if the grieving invest in them.
The New York Times featured in its blog in 2009, the opinions of Robert Tiernan, a Colorado lawyer who maintains three reasons that such memorials should not be allowed.
“First, they constitute the taking of public property for private purposes,” Tiernan is quoted as saying. “Second, they invariably include Christian crosses and other religious symbols. This violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state because public facilities are being used to promote religion.
“Third, they are a distraction and, therefore, dangerous to the motoring public.”
He references the danger of the objects, many of which are anchored to the ground, as well as the presence of visiting mourners who further distract drivers or cause traffic problems.
RoadPeace is a website community established to ease some of the friction experienced between the bereaved and authorities. It actively campaigns for road danger reduction, which ultimately reduces need for memorials.
“There is a question about whether roadside memorials create further risk of a collision through distraction,” RoadPeace states online. “Where a fatal crash has occurred, there is a need for a memorial in response to private grief and raising public awareness, (but) RoadPeace asks all local authorities to use this internet memorial site when the removal of personal tributes is necessary.”
Meanwhile, a burgeoning industry has grown up around the use of car window decals that memorialize deceased family and friends. Some have ventured that this became prevalent as U.S. service members died in the Middle East wars within the past decade — then caught on as a way to honor firefighters and police officers lost in the midst of performing their jobs.
Today, they honor everything from stillborn babies and elderly relatives to beloved pets.
This moving tribute, literally, is met with a considerable degree of derision and some suspicion from other drivers that such displays are mere bids for attention. Over the years, the decals have become available in an assortment of colors and styles, and various companies manufacture them. The better materials resist sun damages and are geared for longer-lasting use.
As humanity progressively spends less time in one-on-one personal communication by stationing itself behind computers and other electronic transmissions and devices, we have adopted two methods of wearing our feelings for the public to see and react to: homemade tributes and car decals bearing messages.
Yet traveling the road of humanity seems rife with messages — whether you’re looking for them or not.
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