A mixture of sadness and curiosity washes over me every time I see a street corner adorned with a cross, teddy bear, and flowers. I have seen these roadside memorials throughout my life, but have never known anyone who personally created one. How did this practice begin? Who makes them? What is their function? Fortunately, Gary E.A. Saum’s folklore project, “Roadside Memorials: Material Focus of Love, Devotion, and Remembrance,” helps satisfy my curiosity.
Saum reports differing accounts for the origin of roadside memorials. One source traces it to the 1847 piling of stones tradition called descansos (resting places) during the Taos rebellion in New Mexico. Another source attributes it to a Mexican tradition of marking the death of a loved one with a pile of stones. Yet other evidence points to the centuries-old tradition in Latin American cultures where offerings to Catholic saints were placed at an altar or statue. Such an act is similar to roadside memorials whereby the “offerings” are left to memorialize the victim instead of giving thanks to saints. Therefore, the tradition “appear[s] to have started in the new world either as an imported Spanish tradition or as a tradition borrowed from the Spanish by the Indians” (Saum 257).
Centuries later, this tradition is currently found at the site of fatal car accidents. In Saum’s fieldwork, he interviewed grieving family members who have a roadside memorial. It was constructed the night of 17-year-old Eric’s death when Eric’s high school buddies nailed together a wooden cross, placed it at the spot of the accident, and the spot was quickly filled with mementos from other friends. About two months later, Eric’s mother added luminaries and pledged to light them every night to show her love and devotion for her son. Similar roadside memorials are seen throughout the U.S., Mexico and numerous other countries. Accordingly, making them is not limited to people with a certain nationality. Rather, they are made across cultures by “friends, family members, and loved ones to remember someone lost to them in a traffic fatality” (256).
For some people, roadside memorials represent a holy ground; for some, they are a location for prayer vigil. Yet, others consider them warnings against drinking and driving. As seen in Saum’s fieldwork, Eric’s mother views it as a place to show her dedication to Eric’s memory. Thus, a roadside memorial’s function is “as varied and individual as the person it commemorates” (258).
Saum’s folklore project helped me better understand the tradition of roadside memorials and especially about the people who create them. The heart-wrenching story, as told by the interviewees in Saum’s fieldwork, helped me relate to someone who would create a roadside memorial. Especially, I was touched by the mother’s unwavering dedication to light the candles every day. Overall, I can see how roadside memorials are about “love, devotion, and remembrance,” as this project is fittingly entitled.
Saum, Gary E.A. “Roadside Memorials: Material Focus of Love, Devotion, and Remembrance.” Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions. By Martha Sims and Martine Stephens. 2nd ed. Logan: Utah State UP, 2011. 255-69. Print.