Dec 28, 2016

Where They Left Us – Spontaneous Roadside Shrines

A man's dying is more the survivor's
affair than his own.

Thomas Mann




Lonely against dry grasses and blue sky
After driving over 3,500 km to get to Campeche Mexico, where we will be spending nearly three months exploring the greater area, and seeing many shrines lining the various roadways we took, I thought I’d try to get a better understanding of this phenomenon.  We were lucky that it was soon after the Day of Dead celebration when most families spruce them up.  They are very colorful for a few months.

Ghost bike shrine
Be they correspondingly called wayside/highway tributes, animitas (memorial stones), descansos (places of rest), crucitas (small crosses), memorias (memories), capillitas (small chapels), grutas (grottos), or memorials, they have been around for a very long time, and take many shapes and forms.  Many find them offensive and dangerous, others find them touching and thought provoking.  They are found around the world but most of the ones we have seen have been in Mexico where they have especially very deep roots.


Over time, they have become cultural icons.  Part Mexican-influenced form of recognized folk art and part expression of faith, they have evolved from the Spanish-Catholic traditions brought to the New World by early missionaries and settlers.  They mark the sites of fatal accidents and other tragedies that happened away from home.  There are even some shrines underwater, on mountain tops, or in deep ravines.
Unlike headstones which mark where a body is laid, shrines mark the place the misfortune (murder, bombing, kidnapping, hostage, etc.) happened, not necessarily where the people died.  If that were the case, shrines would fill hospitals, ambulances, and clinics. 
Capillita near Nogales, Mexico
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Arizona State Highway Patrol began using white crosses to mark the site of fatal car accidents.  This practice was continued by families of road-crash victims after it was abandoned by police. 


There are two theories as to how they began in Mexico:
  1. In the old days, funerary processions where a group would proceed from church to graveyard carrying a coffin, the bearers would take a rest (descanso), and where they set the coffin down, a stone would be placed so others would remember to pray for the deceased.  At each rest, there was time to contemplate death. Stones eventually gave way to crosses.
  2. As soldiers died while making their way across Europe, crosses were erected to mark their passing. Catholic conquistadors brought this tradition into North America, marking graves of their fallen.  To bury someone (probably not just soldiers) where they fell on a journey was practical and necessary.
I think I prescribe to the second one, it makes more sense to me but take your pick.
The simplest of shrines
The spread of roadside shrines in the US has increased as a result of large immigrant populations from Mexico entering the US.  Although not limited to Mexicans, roadside memorials are most common in areas with large Mexican populations.  On this trip, we have certainly noticed that we see many more shrines near areas with higher concentrations of people.


With nearly 30-35,000 (as high as 53,000 before safety belts and air bags added to cars) travel-related deaths/year, roadside memorials have increased at an alarming rate and states in the US are now having to enact laws concerning them.  Those opposed find the memorials morbid, a dangerous distraction and hazard to drivers, and a problem for state road workers in maintaining the roadways and right-of-ways clear of debris and disturbances.  Many are against special exemptions being given for roadside memorials when the law bars all others from placing signs, advertising or promotions on public property. Another problem stems from the use of public space for personal mourning and the constitutional right of the separation of church and state, i.e. religious symbols placed on state (public) property is being violated. (It doesn’t matter if a Christian cross, Muslin crescent or Jewish Star of David would be used, it is still in violation of the separation of Church and State.)
We see lots of multi-cross shrines
Laws differ from state to state but some of the key differences are:
  • Some states will only allow a shrine if the death was due to drunk driving.
  • Some states move the shrines to a special memorial garden.
  • Some states will only allow a shrine for a specific amount of time.
  • Some states will only allow one of their state-issued shrines, usually a sign that says please drive safely and “In Memory of…” with the name of the person who is being remembered on that sign.
  • Some states will only allow shrines a certain distance from the road and of a certain size.
  • Only New Mexico has laws stating they are approved and that it is a crime to deface them.
A law that I haven’t seen anywhere but thought would be good would be to emphasize that all shrines are made with biodegradable materials or that a person should just plant a local tree/shrub in remembrance – staying green that way…


Roadside shrines are more a reflection of the persons who made them, than of the person in whose memory they were erected.  Roadside memorials are almost always handmade, and they vary a great deal in form and style.  They communicate an imagery and an iconography which is not driven by (at least not yet), or even much affected by, commercial or media influences.
Roadside tragedy

Roadside shrines communicate something with a meaning and emotional power that is hard to retain when flying by at 70 miles/hour.  If/when taking the time to stop and stand in front of them, they can help reset our sense of perspective or of what is important and what is not.  The true power of roadside shrines is that they remind us of our mortality, and the mortality of those we love.

Roadside shrines represent a very private experience, and one can feel like an invader yet they are located in extremely public spaces.  Commonly facing the highways, there is the expectation that they will be seen by the passerby. 
Says a lot...
These communal and spontaneous performances of grief are a way for people to work out a personal connection to an otherwise numbing catastrophe and are bringing comfort during disaster.
There is no "right" way to mourn.   These memorials are reflections of genuine emotions experienced by real people, and they are surely entitled to be respected as such.  They allow families/friends to display their grief to the world.  In respect, we never touch them or alter them in any fashion.
Have to have a few with the Virgin de Guadalupe
The phenomenon is all around the world.  In Australia, an astounding one in five auto accident fatalities is commemorated by a roadside shrine.  Yet we traveled there for a whole month and never saw one?  They have official websites listing names/dates for each shrine.
Spontaneous shrines with no clear guidelines have certain common material elements, such as crosses, flowers, candles, and objects linked to the deceased or the event that are left at the site of the tragedy as ritual offerings.  We have seen shrines with anything from miniature corn stacks or saddles, to replica of 18-wheeler trucks, to motorcycle helmets or boots, to beer or tequila bottles and side-view mirrors, bumpers, or hubcaps.
Shrines emerge spontaneously at the site of a tragedy, in many cases almost instantly.  95% of shrines are erected by family members, and 80% by women.  Every single person interviewed believed that the shrine site was more significant than the gravesite itself.  Roadside shrines are a meeting place for communication, remembrance, and reflection, embodying ongoing relationships between the living and the dead. They are a bridge between personal and communal pain and one of the oldest forms of memorial culture.
Cross and capillita
Colorful capillitas
Although as someone said the other day, ‘I don’t need a shrine to remind me of the exact place my significant other died’.  Each time I pass by that place I am reminded.
They are morphing:
We now have the ghost-like phenomenon, where an old bicycle is painted white and locked up at an accident site, serving the same purpose in relation to cycling casualties.
The digital world offers a new grieving ritual "cybershrines," or online photos of material shrines, memorial webpages, and online condolence message boards and virtual candles.  Cybershrines, or webpages contain photographs of the material shrines, photo montages, and other associated images such as lighting virtual candles and virtual condolence books.  These flooded the internet by the hundreds and perhaps thousands following terrorist attacks.
These spontaneous shrines are among the deepest expressions of our shared humanity, combining ritual, pilgrimage, performance art, popular culture, and traditional material culture. Think of the acres of flowers and other memorabilia in the streets of London after the death of Princess Diana, Elvis Presley's Graceland; the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris; and throughout Corpus Christi, Texas, the home of slain Tejano music star Selena.

Of the hundreds and hundreds of shrines we saw, only one had reflectors and could be seen at night.
Cactus shrine on the Baja side
Shrines express grips with events which numb our emotions and defy explanation. The shrines reduce the overwhelming enormity of the catastrophe to a more manageable human scale, thus helping to make the event more comprehensible, especially when the emotions evoked are new and raw. Placing a memento at a shrine gives people a sense of purpose, making them feel less helpless and powerless. For many people, placing a memento at a shrine is an act as sacred and comforting as lighting a candle at a church altar. The shrines are a metaphoric threshold which represents the end of numbness and the beginning of the ability to take action.
The media often uses the term "makeshift memorial" to refer to these shrines. I believe that "spontaneous shrines" is a more appropriate designation. Memorials are often intended to be permanent and are aimed toward a future audience; spontaneous shrines are ephemeral and have an immediate audience. Memorials are much more passive; the spontaneous shrines are extraordinarily dynamic.
By embracing what is timeless, expansive, and untouchable in them, we celebrate our own boundless perfection. Likewise, by honoring their state of death, we acknowledge the fragility and temporality of our own life.  Whenever we see a little family of crosses on the side of the road, we know to slow down- literally and figuratively.
Flickr, Riding In Front, Don Brown

In some instance, the mourners bless the soil with holy water. They are comforted knowing that the lingering soul is on camposanto (holy ground) and that their departed will be remembered.
A good question to ponder:  From a cultural and folkloric perspective, descansos mark an “interrupted journey,” a path (physical, spiritual or metaphorical) whose course has been altered (often by tragedy).
Even in accident-related descansos, there is controversy about who merits a memorial: Should it include the drunk driver who caused the accident or only his or her victims? Should a criminal and killer be memorialized?
Flickr, No Moe Sewing Ain't Here
"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs
of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…
They are, I believe, the voice of the people."

Jack Santino

Sources:  Paul Mullins, Sylvia Grider, Alex Kerekes, and Rudolfo Anaya

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