Why Do People Put Up Roadside Memorials?

Recently during an interview about Resting Places, I was asked about the phenomena of roadside memorials—those crosses that have been endemic along our roads and highways, marking the spot where a loved one died violently. In my novel the main character Elizabeth goes on a cross-country journey where she stops at many of these memorials. The question the interviewer asked, specifically, was why now? Why has this tendency of people to put up roadside memorials come at this moment in history? Why isn’t a cemetery enough of a remembrance to our lost loved ones. My answer was that I think it has something to do with our changing relationship to death and dying. A century ago the loved ones of someone who passed had an active role in conveying their dead to whatever final resting place they felt was appropriate. They did not stand aside and let someone like a funeral director make all of the decisions and take all of the initiative regarding, for instance, the preparation of the body, the transferal to the cemetery, or even the digging of the grave. In Native American rituals, the dead are thought to go on a journey. The Hopi Indians thought the soul moves westwards along a sky path. In preparation for the journey the dead were washed with natural yucca suds and prayer feathers were tied around the head of the deceased. The Lakota typically placed bodies on a scaffold to help the spirit’s journey into the sky. Previous to the 20th Century, rural families typically had a private gravesite on their farm where they buried their loved ones. They would prepare the body, washing it and dressing it, then “waking” it in their own parlor. Later they would transport the body itself to the grave that they themselves had dug. Robert Frost has a great poem called “Home Burial” about the death and burial of a couple’s child. Such rituals where the survivors took an active part in conveying the dead from “life to death” not incidentally enabled the survivors to prepare themselves for their loved one’s death. In our modern era, that process is taken out of the hands of those grieving. I argue in my novel—through Elizabeth’s journey—that we need to take a more active role, to get our hands dirty, so to speak, in conveying our loved ones to whatever final resting place—be it in our vision of an afterlife, or at least in our hearts. When the loved ones of someone who has died along our roads goes out and digs a symbolic grave and erects a cross they themselves constructed, they feel that they have had a hand in guiding their loved one to some spiritual resting place.