American roadsides are home to a vast range of impromptu memorials, some anonymous and modest crosses at the scene of a tragedy and others elaborate and well-maintained commemorations. Most of the markers on the shoulders of American streets commemorate the victims of an automobile accident, but there seem to be no especially systematic surveys of the geographical distribution, styles, composition, or duration of such markers. The phenomenon is not restricted to the US: In Australia, for instance, an astounding one in five auto accident fatalities is commemorated by a roadside memorial, and a thorough and fascinating catalogue of its roadside memorials reveals exceptionally complex markers and a diverse range of material commemorations; in the Ukraine, markers are traditionally placed at the site of tragedy and dot Ukrainian roadsides; and an ambitious French study by anthropologist Laetitia Nicolas inventoried markers and elements of roadside shrines throughout the country, with some thorough ethnographically researched studies of some shrines. While these memorials appear to have become much more common in the past few decades, the historical roots for such memorials extend well into the past, too, evoking the trailside burials left along arteries blazed by the earliest settlers into the American West.
There is a series of compelling archaeological questions in these spontaneous shrines that reflect how we manage tragedy and loss and collectively approach public space. Anthropologist Sylvia Grider provides perhaps one of the most systematic analyses of such roadside shrines, placing roadside memorials within a continuum of spontaneous shrines at sites of everyday tragedy including auto fatalities, “ghost bikes” at cycling accident sites, and gun violence as well as the Oklahoma City bombing site, Ground Zero, and the site of the Columbine High School shootings. Some scholars attribute the recent explosion of roadside memorials and other spontaneous public shrines to the public mourning and ritual offerings that spontaneously began to appear at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial as soon as the Wall opened in 1982, all of which are collected by the Park Service. Grider interprets roadside memorials and comparable spontaneous shrines as folk art that has no especially clear guidelines, but there are certain common material elements, such as crosses, flowers, candles, and objects linked to the deceased or the event that are left at the site of the tragedy as ritual offerings. Shrines emerge spontaneously at the site of a tragedy, in many cases almost instantly: for instance, flowers, Batman memorabilia, and hand-written notes appeared at the site of the July shootings in Aurora Colorado by the following morning. Grider is one of a handful of scholars who provide us a rich starting point for such research: Jack Santino approaches these shrines as commemorative mechanisms placed in the public landscape that often invoke genuine social activism; Laetitia Nicolas’ thesis provides a rigorous study of French examples from the Alpes de Haute-Province; Art Jipson has conducted interviews with a wide range of people who erected such memorials (compare his powerpoint on the project); and photographer Lloyd Wolf has documented a host of Washington D.C. memorials to the victims of violence. Yet much of what we know about these shrines as material culture is relatively impressionistic and would never satisfy an archaeologist as a rigorous material analysis. For instance, we do not have particularly systematic inventories of the sorts of things that appear in shrines; the frequency of such markers is not clearly mapped; their size and spatial arrangement remains undefined; the duration of the shrines varies widely; the geographic and cultural distinctions in patterns are unclear; and the ethnographic complexities of why particular people erect shrines remains only impressionistically documented. A narrative on roadside memorials based on such rigorously analyzed material patterns would almost certainly tell distinctive stories about society and grief.
The vast majority of roadside shrines and memorials are testaments to auto accidents, and perhaps in some eyes these memorials are cautionary tales about the dangers of the road. Jack Santino, for example, sees spontaneous shrines as public political statements illuminating a concrete social ill, with roadside memorials often speaking against drunk driving. In most cases, though, these shrines are fundamentally efforts to simply manage incomprehensible tragedy. In his interviews with 309 individuals who contributed to 127 memorials, Art Jipson found that 95% of shrines are erected by family members, and 80% were erected by women; interestingly, every single person he interviewed believed that the shrine site was more significant than the gravesite itself. Roadside shrines spring up when people are trying to memorialize a loved one lost in the sudden and unexpected tragedy of an auto accident, often aspiring to commemorate someone lost in the midst of youth whose life may risk being forgotten. These fatalities are what might be loosely termed “bad” deaths, tragedies that we negotiate publicly through material shrines. Many are anonymous, simple crosses that borrow a horizontal surface—like a sign post, guardrails, or fenceline—outside lawn mowers’ reach. Others are exceptionally complex installations that grow over time and are well-maintained. At least one firm manufactures crosses specifically for use as roadside memorials, but in the thousands of online pictures of roadside shrines nearly all appear to be homemade.
Their appearance in public space has led some communities to attempt to control spontaneous shrines. An Akron, Ohio law decrees that memorials must be removed within 45 days; South Carolina erects official roadside memorial signs, as does Wyoming, and Illinois has a DUI Memorial Sign program; and various communities are debating removing these shrines entirely and joining the 15 states that outlaw them entirely (see Art Jipson’s 2007 review of all American state codes on roadside memorials). The most common argument against the shrines is that they are distractions on public roadways, violating public property law and simultaneously triggering new accidents (though there appears to be no evidence indicating that any wrecks have been caused by roadside shrines or by pedestrians erecting them). Few governments have addressed such memorials as extensions of Christian symbols to public property, and it would be interesting to identify some American memorials that incorporate non-Christian symbols. The persistence of many unmaintained shrines (as well as those that are regularly visited) suggests that there is a largely unspoken recognition of the significance of these spaces and material offerings that most of us are disinclined to contest. State and local governments may aspire to control such relatively spontaneous folk offerings, but it is very unlikely they can do more than remove existing shrines and create significant tension among survivors. In many cases, survivors simply erect new memorials in the wake of their dismantling.
My home state of Indiana is one of those 15 states that has outlawed roadside shrines, but the streets are dotted with a vast range of typical roadside memorials revealing the difference between law and everyday practice. Nearly each day, for instance, I pass a prominent memorial to two Butler University students, DJ Rahn and Carrie Colglazier, who in June, 2003 were on a motorcycle that was hit by a drunk driver. Nine years later the intersection still has two modest crosses erected beneath a tree (on a lot owned by a church, which appears to dutifully mow around the crosses), with a modest stone plaque in the ground, a cluster of flowers, and a sign affixed to the neighboring light pole. What was once a spontaneous shrine might now be termed a genuine permanent memorial, since it appears well-maintained and presently has a flower bouquet that has dried in the midst of a steaming Midwestern summer. The small stone plaque resting between the two crosses is inscribed “If love could have saved you, You would have lived forever,” and the sign on the light pole reads “In loving memory of D.J. Rahn and Carrie Colglazier 6/5/03.” Aesthetically, the shrine is relatively typical, with crosses as the centerpiece of the physical display with a modest memorial addition (in this case the stone plaque, much like angel figurines found on many roadside shrines). The memorial has no reference to Rahn and Coleglazier’s deaths at the hands of a drunk driver, but the visible and public memorial minimally evokes their tragic deaths at the corner. Perhaps most important is not that survivors maintain the memorial but rather that the community willingly allows it to remain in public space and implicitly respect the victims’ memory and survivors’ grief. Even people who may find such shrines unsettling, illegal, or unsightly seem very reluctant to remove the shrines and risk appearing to minimize those memories or grief.
For more on the subject, start with Sylvia Grider’s paper Spontaneous Shrines: A Modern Response to Tragedy and Disaster (New Directions in Folklore 2001).
The Ukraine research was conducted by folklore scholar Svitlana Kukharenko and is detailed in her 2010 dissertation Abnormal Death Rituals in Ukraine: The Folkloristic Perspective (University of Alberta).
Those with JSTOR subscription access should read Jack Santino’s 2004 Performative Commemoratives, the Personal and the Public: Spontaneous Shrines, Emergent Ritual, and the Field of Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore 117:363-372).
For a broader take on difficult memories and space, I highly recommend Kenneth Foote‘s book Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (University of Texas, 2003).
Another fascinating and thoughtful analysis of perception and materiality is Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism From Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Duke, 2007).
Another fine study is Holly J. Everett’s Roadside Crosses in Contemporary Memorial Culture (Texas 2002).