Descansos: Resting Places

Roadside memorial 1

During research for my new novel Resting Places, I came across the term descansos, Spanish for “resting places.” In former times, particularly in the Southwest, a descanso marked the spot along a funerary route where the loved ones of someone who died stopped, laid down the coffin, and rested briefly before continuing to the cemetery. While the growing phenomena of roadside memorials has come to signify a memorial to those who passed away at that spot, the markers continue to represent a moment in time where the living have stopped, put down their emotional burden, and rested. As my character Elizabeth does in the novel, I traveled cross country taking hundreds of pictures of roadside memorials, those descansos where people spiritually laid down the great burden of their losses and paused for a moment. Yet the very act of making a memorial, usually a simple wooden cross but many times something much more elaborate, is a not just a breather, a moment to pause and rest. It is also a creative act, a statement of will, a generative moment that fashions out of the chaos of loss, a declaration of purpose, of love, and of affirming life. I saw hundreds of such acts, of people devastated by the sudden death of a loved one, going out to some lonely stretch of road and digging a hole and setting up a memorial.

Above are two such statements. When I stopped and looked at what was written on the crosses, I was momentarily perplexed. One has birth and death dates, while the other only has the date of death. It chilled me to think that a pregnant woman had died at this spot. But then I began to reflect on the person or persons who put up the crosses, the love that must have existed for their lost loved ones, and I thought about a family coming out here to dig this hole and make a forceful statement of their love. Unlike in a cemetery where all the work is done for you, putting up a cross forces you to “get your hands dirty,” so to speak. And as such you are fashioning a creative act that transcends death.