Roadside Memorial Traditions

Catholic Tradition of Roadside Memorials

The contemporary roadside memorial takes its roots from centuries’ old Catholic tradition, ubiquitous in areas with large Hispanic populations, including Spain, Mexico and the American Southwest.

Known to Mestizo people, (those of Spanish and Indian blood), the 4atholic funeral procession to the cemetery would begin after an animal passed in front of the deceased’s home, as it was believed that the animal announced the arrival of an angel to guide and lead the deceased’s soul to heaven. During the procession, the “descanso”, or place of rest, was where pallbearers had stopped to rest as they carried a coffin by foot from the church to the cemetery. On these resting spots (descansos), stones or crosses were left to mark the event.

Mexico and Latin American Roadside Memorials

Today it is custom among Mexicans and other Latin Americans to place a cross where a family member was killed, either in a motor-vehicle accident or by an act of violence. Each year on the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), the family will put flowers on these roadside crosses. Although the Catholic Church doesn't require them, people put them up out of their own devotion. These roadside shrines are a commemoration for families and remind others to drive carefully and or pray for those who have died.

Roadside Memorial Vancouver WashingtonGreek Influences on Roadside Memorials

In ancient Greece, shrines to pagan gods were built along well-traveled paths for purpose of providing evening travelers with candlelight and a moment of rest and prayerful reflection. Some roadside shrines took on the appearance of miniature chapels, sometimes with interior spaces large enough to hold small ceremonies. One popular chapel stands at the end of the harbor as a place for last-minute prayers of sailors heading into the often-rough waters of the central Aegean sea.

Poland's Influence on Roadside Memorials

In Poland wayside shrines, religious figures, crosses, statues, or buildings resembling a little house or miniature chapel along the roadside are called kapliczki. Larger shrines were constructed by entire villages to publicly thank a saint for a blessing received. Smaller shrines symbolized a tragedy or crime committed. Contemporary shrines often mark the spot of fatal traffic accidents.

Roadside Memorials Beginnings in America

The roadside memorial tradition is thought to have crossed cultural lines to the United States in 1982, when the Vietnam Memorial was erected in Washington, D.C. The public began leaving offerings in front of the monument and continues to do so. The Vietnam Memorial continues to receive about 3 million visitors each year.

Princess Diana Roadside Memorial (Shrine)

In 1997, the custom found its way to the London, England where it was adopted in another outpouring of public grief following the death of Princess Diana of Whales. Mourners left a mountain of flowers and wreaths at the Pont de Alma road tunnel in Paris, France, where her car accident occurred as well as in front of Buckingham Palace.

Since Princess Diana’s roadside memorial, the urban shrine has become popular in the United Kingdom, though it has also sparked debate over the safety of erecting memorials (some jurisdictions have outlawed the practice.)

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