May 3, 2009

On the Phenomena of Roadside Crosses, Highway Memorials, and Ghost Bikes

I pass at least once a week the pictured roadside cross on Interstate 75 just south of the I-475 split in Toledo. I have no idea who is being memorialized by this freeway commemoration, nor even the details of the death of the deceased, though I assume this was a vehicular fatality.

I have been thinking about the reasons that we erect these roadside memorials, and why vehicular accidents in particular merit such attention. If an office worker suddenly died of a cerebral aneurysm while standing at the copier machine, we would be saddened, but I suspect that a copier-side cross would not appear. Yet if the same worker died on the freeway after being crushed by the auto a drunk driver, at least a few family members and friends would consider creating a roadside memorial.

Perhaps it is more than the suddenness of death that moves us to erect these funereal monuments. I think that the seeming injustice of the taking of life by the responsible motorist - whether by accident, neglect, or will - serves to motivate people to find a means of expression in order to facilitate their grief. The aforementioned hypothetical brain aneurysm - while tragic and unexpected - at least offers evidence of an undiagnosed problem, while a traffic fatality is a moment of shock that defies explanation to surviving friends and family.

An interesting parallel to the roadside memorial is the recent permutation of the commemorative genre ghost bike. When a cyclist dies in a vehicular accident, loved ones paint white a junked bicycle, chain it to a nearby post or pole, and leave a memorial note about the cyclist and the circumstances of the accident. These tend to be more political in nature, and are designed to raise awareness of cycling safety and the need for laws to protect cyclists.

We might also consider that roadside crosses represent some belief that the spirit of the dead lurks in the area. I personally do not spend much time pondering the possibility of the paranormal, yet I also recognize that there is also much I am incapable of conceiving about dimensions beyond the one in which I reside. My dilemma is akin to the two-dimensional residents of the fictional world of Flatland, who are perplexed by the appearance of a three-dimensional sphere. Flatlanders could only visualize a point that moved in ways they could not comprehend, and the possibility of a third dimension was both terrifying and heretical.

Some states and municipalities have enacted bans on roadside memorials, citing public safety as the overriding concern. The states of Colorado, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts ban roadside memorials, while states such as California not only place onerous restrictions on roadside memorials, but - in California's case - charge fees up to $1,000 for a small metal sign commemorating accident victims on state highways. You can follow this link to learn state-by-state programs to limit roadside memorials and add money to state coffers by fleecing grieving survivors of traffic fatalities.

Leave it to state bean-counters to find a way to profit from tragedy.

To our late traveler, the focus of the roadside cross: know that you are cherished and missed, and that your loved ones long to one day be reunited with you. And to the memorial creators: the public thoroughfares belong to everyone, and do not let heartless bureaucrats dictate how and where you remember the dead. If state workers tear down your memorial, build another. And another. And another.


historymike said...

Thank you to the person who emailed me about the plural of the word "phenomenon." I originally titled the essay "On the Phenomenon of Roadside Crosses," but then I explored other related topics and retitled it "On the Phenomenon of Roadside Crosses, Highway Memorials, and Ghost Bikes."

Forgetting, of course, to update the now-plural title featuring "phenomenon" to "phenomena."

(goes off to Bad Pluralists Corner for a timeout)

Mad Jack said...

I think there's still a memorial at Flanders and Alexis where two teenagers hit the intersection doing 90 while Northbound on Flanders. The driver lost control at the intersection and lost his life about a hundred yards further down. As I recall the passenger survived.

I've seen several of these roadside memorials in Wisconsin, so I don't know how strictly that law is enforced, but I'm guessing not very much. It probably has a lot to do with the volume of the complaints.

Jim Styro said...

My wife has a great story about road-side crosses, the (seeming) superiority of Jewish drivers, and jokes that arouse the wrath of the All-Mighty. But you'll have to bug the Middle-Aged Woman if you want the whole story. I don't want to get sued for a copyright violation.

microdot said...

Here I am back in the land of roadside driver shrines. They are everywhere, lovingly tended with fresh flowers and pictures. but on the big Routes Nationals, like our local N89, when you get near a big town, strange black figures start appearing on the side of the road with a red lightning bolt streaking through them.
These are actually government agency erected warnings at the sites of fatal accident. Lone or in groups, depending on the number of fatalities, these figures can be very disconcerting and on more than one occasion, because they are life size and unexpected, I have found them a potentially dangerous distraction.

yelrsub said...

Right on, brother!

We pay for the roads and respecting those who lost their lives along them should not be profited from or swept from sight. An occasional though fleeting symbol of our own mortality is not only a good reminder to drive safely, but also expresses love and compassion for our fellow human beings, things lacking in much of our world today.