As Roadside Memorials Multiply, a Second Look

HOCKESSIN, Del. – Once a week, Lyn Forester gets down on her knees, clears the cigarette butts, candy wrappers and beer cans away from the base of a stark wooden cross and holds a quiet vigil for her daughter, who was killed here in a car accident eight years ago.

Her ankles dangling from the curb as tractor-trailers hurtle past just feet away, Mrs. Forester says she knows it is both dangerous and illegal to visit this three-foot-wide median along Highway 141 near Wilmington, Del. But she cannot stay away.

“This is where my daughter’s spirit was last,” Mrs. Forester said, straightening up the plastic flowers and Christmas tree cuttings potted at the base of the shrine for her daughter, Jenni. “I’m more drawn to this spot than I am even to the cemetery where we keep her remains.”

Roadside memorials like Mrs. Forester’s have become so numerous, and so distracting and dangerous, highway officials say, that more and more states are trying to regulate them. Some, like Montana and California, allow the memorials, but only if alcohol was a factor in the crash. Others, like Wisconsin and New Jersey, limit how long the memorials can remain in place.

Now, in a move that is being watched by other states, Delaware is taking a different approach, establishing a memorial park near a highway exit in hopes of discouraging the roadside shrines. The park will include a reflection pool and red bricks — provided free to the loved ones of highway accident victims — with names inscripted to honor the dead.

Just 20 years ago, such intervention by states was unheard of, said Arthur Jipson, who has studied laws governing the memorials and is director of the criminal justice studies program at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Now, Mr. Jipson said, 22 states have such legislation, and the number has more than doubled in the past five years.

The efforts, however, have forced local officials into a delicate balancing act.

“Governments are reluctant to tell people what to feel or how to mourn,” Mr. Jipson said. “At the same time, it’s their job to keep these spaces public.”

The popularity of the memorials has spawned a cottage industry on the Internet, with Web sites like selling mail-order crosses to families that do not want to construct their own. Roadside Memorials warns customers that it “will not be responsible for any accidents or injuries due to the placement of your cross.”

For some, the markers are poignant reminders to drive slowly and a small price to pay to help ease the anguish of loss. But to others, they are macabre eyesores and dangerous distractions that invite rubbernecking and visitors to already hazardous roads.

Highway officials also say the memorials frequently get in the way of road crews cutting grass or clearing snow. Other critics challenge their legality.

“For us, the memorials raise serious church-state constitutional concerns because they usually feature religious symbols and are placed on state property,” said Robert R. Tiernan, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., who successfully defended a Denver man arrested in 2001 after he removed a religious roadside memorial.

“I’m sympathetic to people who have faced this kind of grief,” added Mr. Tiernan, whose 13-year-old son died after a car accident in 1981. “But the public space belongs to everyone, and I think it’s important to honor that.”

Debby Lewkowitz, whose 16-year old son, Adam, died in a car accident in January 2004, cites purely personal justification for her memorial.

“My daughter’s school bus used to pass by this spot every day, and I still do when I drive to work,” Ms. Lewkowitz said, standing beside the weathered bouquet of plastic flowers and silk butterflies she had attached to a wooden post and placed alongside an overpass of Interstate 95 in Newark, Del. “Unfortunately, the memory of my son is here, and to let it go unmarked simply hurts too much.”

With no federal law governing the placement of the markers, state officials have been left to negotiate the issue on their own. Florida, Colorado and Texas will erect a nonreligious marker at the scene of a death. Missouri allows memorials but encourages victims’ families to participate in the state’s adopt-a-highway program instead.

Delaware hopes that its memorial garden will discourage the shrines.

“Our philosophy is that we want to keep our roads clean and safe, and to do that we want to encourage people to have a safe location where they can mourn,” said Darrel Cole, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Transportation.

Construction on the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden began in late 2004 but was halted last year because of a budget shortfall. The 11,000-square-foot garden will be at the Smyrna rest area along U.S. 13, the Dupont Highway, between Dover and Wilmington and will cost $75,000. Benches will surround the reflection pool, and a footpath will contain the inscripted red bricks.

Mr. Cole said that although state legislators enacted a law last year imposing a $25 fine for unauthorized use of state roadways, road crews tried not to single out memorials, focusing instead on removing illegal advertisements and political signs.

For Peter Medwick, an administrator at Wesley College in Dover, that is not enough. Memorials are for cemeteries, not highways, Mr. Medwick said, and it is the state’s responsibility to keep roadways clean.

“The shrines are often left unattended for long periods,” he said, recounting some he had seen with deflated balloons, soggy teddy bears nailed to crosses and photographs in Ziploc bags. “It can get really over the top and ghoulish.”

Often called “descansos,” a Spanish word for “resting places,” roadside memorials are most common in the American Southwest. Most researchers believe they descend from a Spanish tradition in which pallbearers left stones or crosses to mark where they rested as they carried a coffin by foot from the church to the cemetery. Because of this heritage, the memorials are protected in New Mexico as “traditional cultural properties” by the state’s Historic Preservation Division.

Mr. Jipson said that while no national survey had been conducted of the memorials, most transportation officials agreed that their numbers had grown in recent years. An informal study by the Maryland Department of Transportation in 2004 estimated that markers were erected after 10 percent to 20 percent of fatal crashes.

Sylvia Grider, a folklorist and anthropologist at Texas A&M University who has studied the history of the memorials, said their rising popularity in the United States was part of a growing acceptance of public mourning.

“Something happened in American culture when the Vietnam Wall went up and there was an outpouring of offerings in front of it that no one was expecting,” Ms. Grider said. “It became more acceptable to express personal grief in these public areas.”

The Internet has also fostered interest in the memorials. Countless Web sites feature extensive photo galleries of memorials from around the world.

Jacquelyn Quiram, of Shorewood, Ill., said she had sold several hundred crosses in the past year since starting Roadside Memorials. The three-foot crosses are stained brown oak or painted, and, at $80, they come mounted with a bouquet of cloth flowers and a picture frame.

Starting in August 2004, Marcii Magliulo of Penngrove, Calif., followed her daughter’s college soccer team traveling across the country for over a year. Along the way, Ms. Magliulo photographed memorials and left notes asking their owners to contact her.

“I just found myself curious to find out who was behind them,” she said.

Last December, she self-published a book that includes more than 180 stories and photographs, and she said she had sold several hundred copies on the Internet.

While many states have adopted rules regarding the memorials in recent years, Melissa Villanueva, a filmmaker from Kansas City, Mo., who is working on a documentary about the memorials, said the laws were almost never enforced.

“We found lots of people who dislike the memorials but very few willing to actually take them down,” Ms. Villanueva said. “Most people can’t help but feel like these are sitting on hallowed ground.”

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