Roadside reminders: Memorials give grieving families and communities a way to remember tragic loss
by Debra Flax
Jun 07, 2013 | 2934 views |  0 comments | 85 85 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Roadside crosses can be seen across the county, memorializing those whose lives were lost at that spot. Debra Flax/The Anniston Star
Roadside crosses can be seen across the county, memorializing those whose lives were lost at that spot. Debra Flax/The Anniston Star
Behind the tall grass on the outskirts of Piedmont sits a little white cross bearing the name Brandi Price. The pale yellow flowers planted around it are in bloom while the purple wreath hung in the background on a thick black cherry tree is fading slightly.

Price died in a car accident in 2005.

Roadside memorials, like those left in honor of people killed in accidents — generally involving automobiles, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians — began as a tradition of early Hispanic settlers in the Southwestern United States.

Today, these memorials can be found on roadways throughout the country. The lives represented by the crosses left behind are unknown to all but family and friends, but their memorials sit quietly as a caution to those driving by.

On Alabama interstates, signs of any kind not placed by the state department are considered illegal. The statute stems from concern over ease of highway maintenance and distraction to drivers. At the same time, Rebecca Leigh White, an information specialist with Alabama Department of Transportation, said state troopers and ALDOT workers do not actively seek out memorials to remove. “But at the same time we need to make sure our roads are cleaner and safer for drivers. The last thing we want is more crosses.”

One recent and well-known memorial in the area is that of Derek Jensen, the director of external affairs at the Center of Domestic Preparedness in McClellan. The 37-year-old cyclist was hit by a truck on his way to work nearly a year ago, on June 14, 2012.

The day Jensen was killed, friend and fellow cyclist, Preston York, assembled a cross with a bike wheel to signify his death.

“I’ve mowed around it a few times and picked up trash. The family has also gone by and placed personal effects,” York said. “These memorials just remind us of someone that’s passed, keeps them in our memories. And it also reminds us to keep a close look out for cyclists, in particular.”

Though Jensen’s memorial does not revolve around religion, many crosses, the universal symbol for Christianity, hold specific faith sentiments for the people who construct them.

Gary Pete White Jr. died in a motorcycle accident on U.S. 431 in 2003. On his cross, which is tucked behind a guardrail, written in big block print is Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Faith-based grieving

For some families dealing with tragedy, the emotional solace that is found in faith cannot be replaced. But the overwhelming number of wooden crosses dotting roadways raises the question of how other religions grieve.

“We don’t have memorials,” Rabbi Eytan Yammer of Birmingham said of those who practice Judaism. “We engage with the people who have passed at their grave site, because there is a presence with the deceased there. And we focus on the grave as a place for remembrance as opposed to the place where they died.”

For Jews, being able to pray in a spot designated for remembrance, such as a cemetery or synagogue, is an added issue, explained Yammer.

“That being said, there’s not a traditional or Halachic (Jewish law) reason why a person cannot put a Magen David (Star of David) up,” he said. “But, for the most part, it’s just not a customary practice.”

Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, said Islam has no religious symbol that would even be able to translate in place of a cross.

“The symbolic gestures you see relating to Islam are merely reflections of symbols found in our architecture,” he said. “And in general, we do not memorialize. Praying for the dead is part of our religion, so we strictly follow the injunctions.”

In Islamic funeral proceedings, there is no viewing or eulogy delivered. Family members of the deceased continue to ask for forgiveness for the sins of the dead and pray they are in heaven during their five times of prayer each day, Taufique said.

A way to remember

However, for most of those erecting roadside memorials, the solace comes from just remembering.

“It was just a nice way for everyone to grieve together and share stories,” Mallory Vingers said of the construction of the 8-foot-tall cross on U.S. 431 in memory of Corey Pressley and Cory Curtis. The boys, 20 and 19, were killed in a rollover accident in June 2008.

“People came by all throughout the day when it was up,” she said. “(They left) hats and other memorabilia that reminded people of them. There were also sharpies for people to write something on the cross, such as a memory or simply something they wished to say to them.”

Cindy Burch, whose sons were two of the four young men killed in the Anniston Blockbuster shootings of 2002, said the memorial placed at the site of their murder was difficult to bear at first.

“The memorial was started by (Austin Joplin’s) grandfather,” Burch said. “And it was hard in the beginning, driving by the first time, the first few times. But then it was comforting.”

After the original memorial was damaged, Burch replaced it with four cement crosses with each boy’s name. The crosses are imprinted with a double-star logo, which the artist places on all of her cement artwork.

“Whenever I would have a meltdown, which was often, my husband would take me outside,” Burch said. “And one night, it was so dark that I couldn’t see anything in the sky. Just black. And I sat down, closed my eyes and said, ‘Boys, if you’re up there and you know how hard this is for me. Just give me anything. Give me a sign it’s going to be OK.’”

Burch said when she opened her eyes, there were two stars alternately blinking above her.

“I was sure it was a plane,” Burch said. “But they weren’t. And I felt good. I cried more, but I had a good feeling.”

Now, those memorials give her that feeling as well.

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