Christian crosses and other highway memorials
About memorial markers:
Christian crosses and other home-made religious road side memorials are typically
used to mark where a family member or
friend was killed in a highway accident. They are sometimes called "descansos"
-- Spanish for "resting place."
In 2004, there were 42,800 traffic fatalities in the U.S. There is no
national data available on the number of roadside memorials in memory of the
victims. However, the Maryland Department of Transportation estimates
that markers are erected to mark 10% to 20% of fatal crashes.
Inspired by Roman Catholic traditions from Spain and Mexico, these markers
were originally mainly found in the Southwest U.S. They have since spread across
Memorials bring comfort to the family and friends of accident victims:
||Anthony Carter was killed in a two car accident on 2003-OCT-14, near
Clearwater, FL. His mother, Teresa Carter-Lane, 44, came across the accident
scene less than ten minutes later. Her husband installed the cross on the
following day. She said: "I don't want to bother anybody, but that cross
is there for us. No one else. When I go by it, it gives me peace."
Kim Granholm, a volunteer firefighter, was killed in
a two car accident near Esko, MN, as he responded to a car fire on
Interstate 35. His wife, Aliina Granholm, 30, is also a firefighter. She
said: "That was a reminder for my daughters of where their father died.
Every time we'd go by, my daughter would say, 'There's Daddy's cross'."
In 2004, the state removed all roadside memorials. Kevin Gutkneckt, a
spokesman for Minnesota's transportation department, said: "The bottom
line is safety. We don't want things built on the roadsides that could cause
a crash." The large cross, with flowers and two American flags, was
relocated to Granholm's yard. She says that it is not the same. She said: "It
was a reminder for everyone. Something happened here. Somebody gave a life
There appears to be no consensus
on the appropriateness of roadside memorials:
"There's this tendency to litter our landscape with crosses without
considering whether this is the best way to memorialize your loved one.
We can all feel sorrow about a roadside accident, but do we have to be
preached at every time we drive by?" 1
||Some feel that it is important for families to erect highway crosses --
or other religious symbols -- as memorials. It brings comfort to the
survivors. They regard restrictions on religious content of the memorials to be a violation of the family's
and friends' freedom of religious expression. Banning them is often viewed
as disrespect for the country's culture and religious heritage.
||Jennifer Clark and Majella Franzmann wrote:
"The roadside memorial may indicate dissatisfaction with the
traditional mourning practices....The funeral and the cemetery are not
enough anymore. [Grieving families also] do not want loved ones killed
in road accidents to be the anonymous victims of an invisible killer.
They want to personalize this issue."
||Others find crosses offensive. Some Jews,
Muslims, and Native Americans see them as reminders of past horrendous
persecutions at the hands of Christians.
||The mother of Andy Robinson (no relation to the author of this essay)
noted that her son was murdered on a school bus on 2003-DEC-12. She writes:
"I have yet to put up a memorial to him but i plan on planting
wildflowers on the road side where he died." She might have something
there: a beautiful, living, growing memorial that few if any would object
Various states and cities have developed policies about these markers:
||California, North Carolina, and Oregon ban them outright.
||Alaska and West Virginia have state statutes which encourage memorials.
||Texas has allowed them at sites of fatal car accidents but only where
alcohol was a factor. They now have a standard state-designed memorial.
||Montana allows the American Legion to erect crosses at the site
of fatal accidents. This raises the question of whether the Legion
checks first to make certain that the deceased was actually a Christian.
||Florida attempted to remain within constitutional bounds by adopting
a Red Cross symbol in 1997. This has since been replaced by a
circular placard displaying the words "Drive Safely."
||Norton, MA, requires roadside shrines to be removed by 30 days after the
||Nevada held a series of public meetings in 2004 to discuss roadside
memorials. The issue surfaced after highway officials ordered the removal of
an 8-foot steel cross from U.S. Highway 50 near Carson City. It marked the
location where the body of Krystal Steadman -- a young murder victim -- was
discovered. The state had been threatened with a lawsuit if they allowed the
cross to remain. Scott Magruder, spokesperson for the Nevada Department of
Transportation said: "It became a huge emotional issue. And here we are,
the big bad government, [caught] in between."
||Vandalism of roadside memorials was a serious problem in Colorado. They
adopted a standardized blue sign in 2004 with victim's name and the message:
"Please drive safely." and the victim's name.
Stateline.org has a list of state policies concerning roadside
memorials as they existed in mid-2003. However state and municipal government
rules are in a continuous state of flux. We recommend that you check with your
state or provincial transportation department if you wish to install a memorial.
Resolving the constitutional problem of religious symbols:
If safety and procedural conflicts are overcome so that markers can be used
at the roadside, there may be a way to allow the installation of memorials in
the form of religious symbols without violating the separation of church and
state. They might pass constitutional requirements if the state allowed symbols
from any religion, as well as secular symbols, to be used. The new international
Red Cross symbol in the form of a red diamond, could be adopted as a
secular symbol. Christian crosses, Jewish stars of David, Wiccan pentacles or
pentagrams, etc. could all be allowed. At first glance, this should satisfy the
three church-state separation criteria listed above. However,
not everyone would be willing to tolerate some religious symbols.
Deborah Sharp, "Battles over roadside shrines more common," USA
TODAY, 20050JUL-11, at:
Concerns Fail To Curb Roadside Memorials,"
- Jennifer Clark and Majella Franzmann, article in RoadWise, the journal
of the Australian College of Road Safety, 2002-JAN.
Ted Shaffrey, "Are highway memorials treasured remembrances or
traffic hazards?" Dallas News, 2002-AUG-26, at:
"Roadside Memorials & Descansos of South Texas," Everlife
Copyright © 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally written: 2000-JAN-30
Latest update: 2008-JAN-03
Author: B.A. Robinson