“Always bow your head and pray anytime, night or day/Whenever you see a cross on the side of the highway.”
Although you may not be familiar with Hank Williams Jr.’s song, “Cross on the Highway,” you probably recognize the subject: roadside memorials.
The appearance of crosses and candles to mark the place where an individual has died on a highway or back road has made death part of the American landscape.
And while these types of ad hoc expressions of life and death have grown in recent years, they are actually part of a long tradition and a deep human need.
Studies have categorized these memorials as cenotaphs, or empty tombs honoring a person whose body is buried elsewhere.
As one researcher put it, the memorials powerfully express the pathos of loss felt by the bereaved and part of a global phenomenon “where kith and kin create spontaneous shrines to deceased loved ones.”
Such memorials also “are intensely personal, idiosyncratic expressions of loss and remembrance. Some creations are lovingly attended and maintained for years, whereas others stay for just a few months. Some memorials are nearly permanent structures made with engraved stone or metal plaques that are intended to last for years. Others are more temporary displays that disappear after a few weeks, either by natural forces or by vandalism. Some memorials are intended to be seen; they are in a sense performative.”
Additional research shows that while the appearance of roadside memorials in every state may seem like a recent trend, it has been an American practice for more than 200 years and is believed to have its origins in the Southwest and combine indigenous, Spanish, and Catholic rituals.
One especially significant symbol is the use of white crosses on roadways to indicate resting places for funeral processions. The Spanish name for such spots, descansos, has been adapted as a general term for the memorials.
Several related studies mention American anthropologist David Lee Kozak’s studies on attitudes towards death and how the idea of a “bad death” connects to the memorials.
According to Kozak, a “good” death is essentially any death due to old age, prolonged sickness, or a ‘natural’ death that comes gradually and is therefore expected. A ‘bad’ death is one that is sudden, violent, unpredicted, and therefore “unnatural.”
They also shock and fracture the lives of family members and friends whose lives were intertwined with the victim.
While the loss of a loved one is one of the most distressing emotional experiences people face, deaths involving a young, healthy individual killed in an accident result in a more complicated grief that in turn leads to symbolic action.
The complications are furthered by the deep seated idea that a violent or unexpected death creates a distressed spirit unless it is honored.
But as some scholars on the subject note the practice of mourners creating personal memorials and bringing flowers, stuffed animals, food, notes, and other containers of feeling to the site creates a deeper connection with the deceased than they find in a formal cemetery grave.
With 38,000 national highway-related fatalities in 2019 (approximately 600 in New Jersey) and roadside memorials becoming more prevalent, websites devoted to roadside memorials have appeared — including an unofficial national registry site.
In addition to a newsletter, the site also shares some thoughts on creating memorials.
One piece of advice is that people should follow their love and emotion. But it soon suggests that mourners think twice before constructing gaudy and large roadside memorials that can draw attention away from the loved one and attract public scrutiny.
As noted in various newspaper articles, members of a community may feel that after an unspecified time a memorial of any size should be removed from public and private property — as in cases where a family creates a memorial on someone’s lawn and wants to maintain it there for some unspecified amount of time.
Large or noticeable memorials may also start attracting legal problems. As one writer noted in a law review publication, “Since most roadside memorials are shaped in the form of the Christian cross, they represent a religious symbol in a public space, and therefore are violating the law.”
Another concern is that while the majority of roadside memorials are small — with the typical size said to be between one and three feet high and no more than two feet in breadth — and can actually alert car operators to be cautious, larger ones have the power to distract drivers and cause accidents.
“Family and friends will independently put together roadside memorials in honor of loved ones who died in an accident, but they sometimes can present a distraction that endangers drivers, especially if they’re very close to the road,” said New Jersey Assemblyman R. Bruce Land (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland) who along with assemblymen Bob Andrzejczak and Nicholas Chiaravalloti, introduced legislation that that would direct the New Jersey Department of Transportation to establish a roadside accident memorial program.
With no clear state ruling on roadside memorials — besides the NJDOT removing memorials deemed as distractions — the proposed legislation is designed to enable the next of kin of a person who died in an accident to sponsor a roadside sign memorializing the individual.
“When a family member dies in a traffic accident, people want a way to keep that person’s memory alive. The problem at present, however, is that it often involves taking over public property for personal use without approval,” said Andrzejczak (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland) in a bill-related statement. “With a formal program, New Jersey can eliminate any discrepancies about who owns the sign and who’s responsible for maintaining the area.”
“New Jersey had more than 600 motor vehicle fatalities last year. Those people meant something to their loved ones, and it’s important for our state to provide them with a way to safely and legally honor them,” said Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson) regarding the bill. “The state’s roadside accident memorial program will allow people to rest assured that they’ll have a lasting, authorized site to honor the person they lost.”
The legislation that was introduced in early 2020 and advanced by the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee proposes “the next of kin seeking a sign would be required to complete an application that provides the NJDOT with basic information regarding the accident victim, date, and location as well as police reports.
Then “within 60 days of receipt of the application, the department would inspect the location and send a decision as to whether a sign may be installed. Within 60 days of approval, the department would install the sign.”
Although it was not part of the legislation, Andrzejczak says an application fee would be included to fund the program.
The idea of a registration process has critics asking, in the word of one person writing to a newspaper, “Do we really expect grieving loved ones to wait a few months or longer until the state bureaucracy gets around to grinding out a sign?”
The answer to the question is in how one memorial started.
“My parents went to the site the day after the accident happened. They were looking for parts of his car and things in it,” says Felicia Zitani whose brother Vincent “Vinnie” Zitani was killed on June 24, 2019, in a hit-and-run accident on Route 130 in Robbinsville. The spot now is home to a cross, a visitor’s bench, and statues.
“What started the memorial was that they found a piece of the car, stuck it in the ground, and wrote his name and date of death and then placed flowers.
“The next week the cross came to life. My dad worked for PSE&G for over 20 years and (his fellow workers) passed by the site and decided that they would do that cross. It is definitely the centerpiece for the memorial. The bench was homemade by my brother with some of the guys he works with. Friends and family started adding to it.”
She says the property is owned by the New Jersey Department of Transportation whose representatives “had been out several times. They said they were not going to remove anything. They told us they would never move it. They said it was fine that it was there and would keep up with it. Robbinsville police have been there. We know some of them, and one was one of the first on the scene of the accident. They actually came to visit the memorial. No one has a problem with it.”
Talking about the significance of the memorial, Felicia says, “We had my brother cremated, so there is no cemetery plot to visit. That is where he died. This is where he took his last breath. It’s where we feel most connected.”
She believes that the creation of the memorial has helped her family with the grieving process. “It has helped all of us. My father is there almost daily. He feels he is closest to Vinnie when he’s there. He feels that he connects to my brother.
“I go there and try to take it all in. And I feel closest to him there. I think it helps everyone. Even people who didn’t know Vinnie stop there. We’ve met a lot of nice people who stop there.”
That includes two young women who had witnessed the accident, took the photos that enabled the police to find the driver, saw Vinnie take his last breath, and would not leave the site until the coroner claimed the body hours later.
“They stopped (at the site) and talked to my parents. That’s how we met them. We’re still friends with them. They come to family functions. We consider them family now.”
“My brother had a tough life,” says Felicia. “He had a RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome). It’s a debilitating nerve problem, and he went through hell with that. He wound up an addict. He had just been able to get his Trans-Am back on the road — it was his baby. And he had just gotten his job, and he was happy about it. He was trying to help himself as much as possible and get over the pain. He was a month away from turning 24.”
A few months after the memorial was created, Felicia, who was told for years she was unable to have children, came to the memorial and left the following note — along with a sonogram of the baby she was carrying: “We know this blessing was sent down by you to the whole family. We are all so grateful for him and can’t wait to finally meet him! Please continue to watch over us so he is born happy and healthy. We all love you and miss you so much and always will.”
And that’s something to bow one’s head to.