It seems like we hear about a new fatal car crash every day. One of the ways we are notified of these deaths, other than in the news, is by public memorials set up along roadsides. In the article “The boulevard of death: Ghost bikes and spontaneous shrines in New York City” by Paul Mullins, he talks about bikes that are painted completely white and are set up along the sidewalks in NYC as shrines to bicyclists killed along a specific road.
Many people are okay with having public memorials set up, but as the article talks about, some states have certain laws about having them up only for a certain amount of time, or even not at all. Even with all these laws and restrictions, it seems as if the number of roadside memorials increases each year. The question is why? One of the answers is tradition. Sylvia Grider, “a professor emerita of anthropology at Texas A&M University“, commented on a New York Times opinion article from 2009 entitled “Should Roadside Memorials be Banned?“. In her comment, Sylvia stated that “[t]he custom of placing small decorated crosses or other memorials at the side of the highway to mark fatal car accidents has spread from regions of the United States, like the Hispanic Southwest, where they are known as descansos, or resting places, throughout the country and even worldwide. The custom of marking the place of death with a small cross was brought to Mexico and the southwestern United States by Spanish colonists in the 17th century. Later settlers in the region expanded the custom to include leaving small crosses at the spots wherever a casket was set down on the way to the campo santo, or burial ground. Today many people regard roadside crosses as sacred but not necessarily religious”. However, where you live, and your culture can heavily influence your opinion on these memorials. Sylvia states, “unlike the state of New Mexico, which has made it a misdemeanor to remove or vandalize these homemade shrines, in other parts of the country where the custom is not deep-rooted, many people are offended by them and regard them as an unwanted intrusion into their personal space or a violation of the principle of separation of church and state”. But no matter where you live, many of these memorials are considered sacred because they are a part of tradition, and as Sylvia goes on to state, “[t]radition is a powerful force in society”.
Traditions such as placing roadside memorials can also be seen as rituals. As described on the website Cultural Anthropology, rituals can be anything “from the Olympics to the commemoration of national tragedies; cyclical gatherings, from weekly congregations at the local church to the annual turkey carving at Thanksgiving to the intoxication of Mardi Gras; and personal life-patterns, from morning grooming routines to the ways in which we greet and interact with one another. Ritual is in fact an inevitable component of culture, extending from the largest-scale social and political processes to the most intimate aspects of our self-experience”. What all these rituals have in common is that they help provide a sense of identity for people, and help us figure out who we are. For example, a roadside memorial may encourage people to really understand and identify with the fact that we are not immortal. Also, especially when the memorial is a cross, it can strengthen one’s identity and belief in their faith.
All in all, these roadside memorials are a part of a tradition that has been passed down for centuries. This tradition can help many to strengthen their identities, beliefs, and so on. So next time you are driving down the road and see a roadside memorial, just think what it means to you. Would your family be a one of the ones that would set up a roadside memorial for someone? Does it have anything to do with your culture or geography?