Private Memories in Public Places
The roadside memorials that dot our highways and city streets are a recent addition
to the landscape. In 2005, while on one of my many road trips, I became acutely
aware of the crosses that had been placed along the side of the road, memorializing
loved ones who had died there. Since then, I have driven more than 20,000 miles
in pursuit of them. Most of us barely notice them as we drive along, but these
memorials have become an integral part of the national landscape. They have
evolved into a folk art that is not limited to a particular ethnicity or region. Perhaps we
don't notice them because they have become so common that they no longer arrest
our attention. And perhaps it's because they often fit so naturally into the landscape.
I see the monuments as something primarily joyful and celebratory; they are more
about honoring a life than mourning a death. As I look at them, I am struck by
the obvious care, time and work that went into their creation. They are intended
to be permanent and to be visited again and again. Their care and beauty are
evidence of the love the person aroused in their families and friends. Sometimes the
memorial appears to have been abandoned, reminding us that life moves on.
There has been much debate over whether these monuments are a nuisance that
should be removed, or whether they are sacred items to be respected. While people
are usually blamed for blighting the scenery, I see these as little works of art that
enhance the scenery.
The compelling question to me is why the survivors need to memorialize the place the
person died. Some have suggested a belief that the soul still hovers at the sight. But
I believe it's because the death was so sudden, violent and unexpected. Perhaps the
survivors want to remember that life stopped right here.