Impromptu Memorials to the Dead

Jon K Reid. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Impromptu memorials to the deceased have become a common feature of the national and international landscape. They take many forms and represent various types of deaths; nonetheless, they have in common the expression of mourning for the deceased, regardless of whether or not the mourner personally knew the deceased.

The site of the impromptu memorial may be located by the roadside, as in the case of a motor vehicle fatality, or outside an apartment entrance, as in the case following the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Jr., wife Carolyn, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette, who died in a plane crash on July 16, 1999. In many cases, the artifacts left at the memorial may include crosses and flowers whose meaning is obvious; however, numerous other artifacts are also left at memorial sites, the meaning of which is less obvious. Some of the functions served by these memorials are to prolong the memory of the deceased in a public place and to communicate with the deceased and to society. Typically, mourners use impromptu memorials as a way of coping with deaths that are sudden and tragic in nature.

Impromptu Memorials

Memorials to soldiers and statesmen are commonplace in most major cities in the United States, particularly in Washington, D.C. These memorials—usually years in the planning process, including design competitions, scale models, and fund-raising efforts—commemorate those who died in battle and those who were great leaders. Groundbreaking ceremonies draw public attention to what is under construction, and formal unveiling ceremonies once again emphasize the significance of the subject of the memorialization. These memorials are often constructed many years following the event, such as a war or the death of the historical figure. These events and memorials are public and specifically designed to commemorate something or someone specific. Usually, the significance and purpose for the memorial are clear.

Impromptu memorials, however, are typically the work of only one person or a small number of people whose contributions may form a much larger memorial but one that is still temporary in nature. Although the object of the veneration may be obvious, the meaning or meanings of the acts of memorialization may be undecipherable to the observer. I have had the opportunity to do an in-depth study of memorials left by the roadside to victims of auto fatalities. I’ve made further observations at cemeteries, where people often leave seasonal reminders at the grave of a loved one (such as the grave of Selena Quintanilla-Perez in Corpus Christi, Texas, who was shot and died on March 31, 1995); the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and Smithsonian exhibits in Washington, D.C.; the memorials left at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building; and the site of the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy in College Station, Texas. By way of explanation of these tragedies, the Murrah Federal Building was a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma that was bombed on April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh was convicted and executed for the bombing of this building and the deaths of 168 people. Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, is a publicly funded university of 40,000+ students that had an annual tradition of hosting a student-built bonfire as a spirit-building event prior to the annual football game with their biggest rival, the University of Texas in Austin. A week before the football game in the fall of 1999, while under construction, the bonfire structure abruptly fell, killing 12 students.

Whereas a person can choose not to visit the site of certain tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing site or the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy, memorials placed by roadsides are difficult to avoid. Reactions vary in response to roadside memorials in that some auto passengers claim never to see any, some are angered by the sight of them, and some feel great compassion when observing one. Roadside memorials placed at the site of an auto fatality evoke myriad feelings for both the bereaved and the passers-by.

Methodology for Gathering Data

Texas A&M University Bonfire Impromptu Memorial

A phenomenological study was initiated that involved gathering visual data and field notes during participant observation at the bonfire site exactly one week after the tragedy. All data were subjected to coding, and emergent themes were analyzed to illuminate the meaning of spontaneous memorials for both participants and observers.

Roadside Memorials

The roadside death memorial observations described in this manuscript are addressed in greater detail in Reid and Reid (2001a) and are based on data gathered during the time period of August 1996 to March 1998. Many of the roadside memorial sites were discovered during routine travel; however, a considerable number were intentionally observed based on newspaper reports of traffic fatalities.

Additional Memorial Observations

Intentional observations of larger-scale impromptu memorials were also conducted at public memorials in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing site, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the John Lennon memorial at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Surveys of Visitors to and Observers of Roadside Memorials

To go beyond artifact data available at memorial sites, two surveys were conducted. One survey, conducted in 1999, obtained perspectives from a nonbereaved student population with regard to their personal awareness of roadside memorials and to identify the impact of roadside memorials on students’ thoughts and driving behavior. The students are identified as “no-bereaved” because they were from the general population of college students; however, as would be the case in the general population, some of the students were indeed bereaved. Students surveyed for this study were from two universities in Texas, one university in Oklahoma, and one university in New Jersey. A total of 134 usable surveys were gathered.

A second survey involved leaving questionnaires at the site of roadside memorials with the hope that some of the mourners visiting the site would discover the questionnaire, complete it, and return it in the stamped, self-addressed envelope placed within the clear plastic bag containing the questionnaire. Of 30 sites where questionnaires were left (attached to the cross), 6 questionnaires were returned. Those responding were immediate family members such as grandparents, parents, and spouses of the deceased, and all but one of the survey respondents was female. All the decedents were male. Respondents identified themselves as either “average” in religiosity or “more religious than average.”

Are Impromptu Memorials a Problem?

The answer to this question depends on who is asked. As a reference point, however, Worden’s (2002) “task-based” model of mourning states that the final task of mourning—Task IV—is to “emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life,” within which he states that “we need to find ways to memorialize…to remember the loved one” (p. 35). In an abbreviated format (a table heading) in a later chapter, Worden restates Task IV as the need “To Relocate and Memorialize the Loved One” (p. 47), in which case he elevates the stature and importance of memorializing. Although he does not specifically address impromptu memorials, it would seem that these might be reasonably assumed to fulfill this need to remember the deceased and that placing artifacts at or visiting an impromptu memorial could assist with the completion of Task IV. It would also appear that two of the other tasks of mourning—Task I, “To Accept the Reality of the Loss” (p. 27) and Task II, “To Work Through the Pain of Grief” (p. 30)—would be positively affected by engagement with impromptu memorials.

The literature frequently refers to automobile-related collisions as motor vehicle accidents or MVAs. The categorization of all motor vehicle fatalities as “accidents, however,” is questionable. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has called for the phrase “motor vehicle collisions” (MVCs) to be used to make the point that fatalities caused by drunken driving are not accidents, because of the choices that were made to consume alcohol as well as to drive while under the influence of alcohol (Lord and Mercer 1997). In accordance with this request by MADD, the initials MVC are used here in this chapter. Although some of the fatalities discussed in this chapter were due to substance abuse, other causes were also involved.

Based on newspaper accounts, causative factors included failure to obey traffic signs, driving at an unsafe speed, not using seat belts, and poor weather conditions. The Oklahoma City and World Trade Center tragedies were clearly caused by human volition, and the Texas A&M bonfire collapse has been reported as primarily the result of human error.

At the beginning of data gathering for the study by Reid and Reid (2001a) on roadside memorials, a review of the research literature (using PsychLit) yielded only one citation addressing roadside death memorials (Kozak 1991), although this phenomenon had been addressed through newspaper articles and publications by MADD. Since that time, numerous other sources have been located that make reference to roadside death memorials and, more generally, impromptu memorials, but more research is needed with regard to the functions served by these memorials. In this chapter, I attempt to answer some basic questions about the purposes served by impromptu memorials, with emphasis on roadside memorials

Origins of Roadside Memorials

Numerous sources document that some manner of marking a spot where tragedy occurred has been used in mourning rituals for many years and in many countries. Radford and Radford (1969) describe a practice dating back to at least 1901 in England in which a cross was cut in the stone or scratched in the dust at the site of an accident or a murder. This practice was to pacify and keep the ghost of the deceased from haunting the location and also so that passers-by would continue to remark the spot.

Hastings (1992) reports that the use of crucitas (“little crosses”) have been used “dating back to Spain and the conquest of the New World” (p. 8a). Spanish tradition used crosses by the side of the road to mark resting places (or descansos) for those who were carrying a coffin to a burial ground (Ball 1995). In addition, the use of these roadside crosses indicated the burial of someone who was buried where they died, often from harsh circumstances. Hastings (1992) reports, “The tradition of roadside crosses to mark the spot where an untimely death occurred has survived in South Texas and migrated with Mexican-Americans to other parts of the country” (p. 8a). “The basic function in the Catholic culture is to remind passers-by to stop and pray because at this place a person left the world without the preparation of the church” (Averyt 1998:1-2; also see Ball 1995). The Tohono O’odham tribe of southern Arizona has been using death memorials to mark the locations of violent or “bad” deaths for over 30 years (Kozak 1991).

Characteristics of Spontaneous Memorials

Haney, Leimer, and Lowery (1997) have addressed the practice of spontaneous memorializations, which are often in response to a violent death, such as from murder, auto accident, or suicide. According to Haney et al., spontaneous memorializations have seven distinct characteristics. In what follows, each characteristic is stated and followed with specific examples:

1. Spontaneous memorializations are “a private individualized act of mourning . . . open for public display” (Haney et al., p. 161). Such public displays in the form of roadside shrines have been reported, for example, in Greece. These are intricately detailed houselike structures with a clear glass or plastic front to protect the objects inside (“Advocates in Action” 1992). Another example comes from a book written as a tribute to a daughter who was killed by a speeding driver; a photograph is included of “Gili Klein’s Garden.” It is a heart-shaped and flower-filled memorial to mark where the author’s daughter Gili was thrown from a car (Kagan-Klein 1998).

2. Spontaneous memorializations are often placed at the site of the death or a place associated with the deceased, as opposed to the more traditional setting of a cemetery. In an interview with the mother of an accident victim, Hastings (1992) addresses the significance of the collision site to the bereaved:

His body is buried in the cemetery, but I have a real strong feeling—maybe its anger—that (place at the railroad tracks) is where he was taken from me. That’s where I lost him … I had that cross made, and I had it in my home for probably three months until I felt the time was right to put it out … I guess part of it was letting go” (P. 1A).

The mother of two daughters “killed in a Christmas Eve accident in 1993” reports that she has not seen the memorial created and placed by her ex-husband to their daughters, but that “just knowing the two white steel crosses stand at the fatal intersection helps her cope” (“Accident Victim’s Memorials” 1997). As indicated in these accounts, the site of the tragedy takes on a special quality for the bereaved; it holds special significance that some describe as a sacred place. For example, when a state department of transportation reported that it would remove roadside memorials, a bereaved father whose daughter was killed in an MVC promised to chain himself to the roadside cross. Nonetheless, in the student survey, several respondents reported that impromptu memorials do not belong in public and that such observances belong in a cemetery.

3. Spontaneous memorializations are remembrances of those who may or may not have been included in the traditional mourning ceremonies. In answers to a question about who places the memorials, in most cases, the relationship to the deceased was not indicated, but at a number of roadside memorial sites where a relationship was stated, it was evident that the mourners included offspring of the deceased, parent(s), siblings, aunts, cousins, and friends (Reid & Reid, 2001a). In my own observations, such specificity was not typically indicated at the bonfire site, although many of the mourners were evidently fellow students and well-wishers from the local community as well as from distant locations.

4. Spontaneous memorializations often include traditional and idiosyncratic mementoes. As indicated by the title “A Cross Marks the Spot” by Reid and Reid (2001a) and consistent with observations by Leimer (1996) and McCollister (2000), a cross features prominently in the majority of roadside memorials. Next in frequency are the placement of flowers, which may be fresh or artificial. Ribbons, bows, and wreaths are also common. Additional artifacts include hearts, angels and cherubs, crucifixes, photos of the deceased, stuffed animals, candles, and flags of countries or other loyalties, such as a school or university. The same variety of artifacts has been observed at other impromptu memorial sites as well.

5. The meaning of the mementos is known only to the person placing the item or to both that person and the deceased. Leaving artifacts at significant sites of catastrophic death has been reported by Foote (1997) and has been observed at numerous sites, such as the site of the bonfire collapse in College Station, Texas; the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington, D.C.; and at burial sites, as noted by Unruh (1998) in regard to a monument to Geronimo:

Visitors often leave a token at the grave or in a “gift tree.” The gifts were left … in the belief [that] “the spirit never dies, and from time to time the spirit returns….” Well-wishers at Geronimo’s tall monument have tied feathers and pouches to boughs in a nearby cedar tree. On one day, a visitor looking at the monument itself would find [a variety of idiosyncratic gifts]. (P. 13G)

In conjunction with the exhibit in memory of John Lennon, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, also exhibited two leafless trees, which were made possible through the generosity of Yoko Ono. These were “wish trees” for John. Visitors were invited to write a wish on a small piece of paper, with a string through it so that it could then be placed on the bare limbs of the trees. Thus the wish cards became leaves on the trees.

Additional artifacts left at impromptu memorial sites have included a dove, a necklace(s), praying hands, unsmoked cigarettes, beer, baseball caps, a Twix candy bar wrapper, a maraschino cherry and a quarter on top of the same cross, a waitress’s apron, a fishing lure, and so forth. Small pieces of wreckage were observed at several of the roadside memorial sites; in some cases, these appeared to have been gathered with other artifacts, and in other cases they may have merely been inadvertently left at or near the site. This roadside phenomenon was also observed in Mexico by Greenleigh and Beimler (1998).

The Aggie bonfire site at Texas A&M also included many artifacts, such as the logs for the bonfire that were directly related to the tragedy, in part because of the timing of the observation (a week after the tragedy) as well as the ongoing investigation regarding causation, which would continue for many more months. As of 2003, a permanent memorial was well along in the planning stages and a design had been selected after an international competition.

Roadside memorials provide evidence of both spontaneity of expression and prior planning. Some of the artifacts at the memorial sites did not appear to be spontaneous but to have been well planned and resulting from the efforts of two or more people. In a sense, however, roadside memorials may indeed not be permanent and are typically not publicly sanctioned in the way that a war memorial is sanctioned or in the formalized fashion that the victims of the World Trade Center attack will be remembered. Two types of examples of planned individual or group memorials include the cross with intricate hand lettering of the poem “Footprints” and the large crosses at two sites with numerous personal messages written on them by teenage friends. At the Aggie bonfire site, a bronze plaque with a poem written for the occasion was on display within a week of the tragedy. However, the site had numerous examples of spontaneously left and spontaneously created artifacts. Hair “scrunchies,” baseball caps, and crudely constructed crosses of limbs or pieces of wood found nearby certainly appeared to be spontaneously left there. One of the more interesting artifacts from the Texas A&M site was a large manila envelope with a note on the front that there were rosaries inside that were being offered to those visiting the site. At the time of observation, the envelope was empty; however, two rosaries were observed to be hanging on the same fence near the envelope. The composition of the sites, including numerous crosses to one decedent, indicated a lack of corporate planning by any group of people, and thus the memorial site appears to have spontaneously developed from the individual efforts of several people. One respondent to the aforementioned survey of visitors to roadside memorials reported that the memorial cross to her husband had been planned and erected without her knowledge, although she was surprised and pleased to see this memorial when she visited the site of her husband’s fatal collision.

6. Spontaneous memorializations are not constrained by the timing afforded traditional ritualization. As soon as the fatality is publicized, which in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is virtually immediately, artifacts in honor of and in memory of the deceased are placed at the site of the tragedy or at some other site associated with the deceased.

In my regular research visits to some of the roadside memorial sites, it was evident, based on new artifacts being left at sites, that loved ones regularly visit some sites. Some of the sites were decorated for the holidays, the most common of which were themes of Christmas and the fall season. It was difficult to identify at the Oklahoma City memorial site whether or not individuals visited the site more than once; however, I visited the site more than once, and it is reasonable to assume that others have done so, too.

On the basis of the dates of the collision as well as the weathering of materials at the sites, some sites appeared to have been in place for several years. Some of the roadside memorial sites are evident for a few months and then they are gone entirely, taken away perhaps by family, friends, or highway maintenance workers. A clear trend emerges that roadside memorials and impromptu memorials are put in place closer to the death date, as opposed to later, and are either removed or succumb to the effects of weathering over time. Artifacts at the Oklahoma City bombing site, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Aggie bonfire site have been regularly collected and archived. Some of the artifacts are displayed for the public as representative of the other artifacts left at these sites.

The bereaved may visit the impromptu memorial sites at any time (with or without leaving an artifact behind), and informant testimony substantiated this idea. As indicated by symbolic items observed at the sites, however, the following times of year were significant for visiting the sites: Christmas, the anniversary of the death date, birthdays, autumn, Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and Memorial Day. As evident in the preceding information, the death site of the deceased, as well as the deceased themselves, are not forgotten on special days.

The purpose of the impromptu memorial site may serve as an immediate place for remembering the deceased before they are buried in the cemetery or their cremated remains are scattered. On one occasion, a gathering of mourners was observed within 24 hours of the fatality and was prior to the funeral. Another purpose for the bereaved is that the impromptu memorial site is a noninstitutional site, unlike a cemetery, which serves as an official site with rules and regulations to guide memorializing behavior. In contrast, the roadside and other noninstitutional settings do not necessarily have such rules, or at least the rules are not typically complied with or enforced in the fashion they would be at a cemetery. Another important contrast is that an impromptu memorial site does not house physical remains, whereas the body or cremated remains are typically present in the cemetery. Perhaps there is also more of a mystical-spiritual element to the site where the tragedy occurred because survivors are not faced with the awareness that the physical body is there in the ground. They can focus more on the fact that the person’s spirit departed here and according to some religious and cultural traditions, may in some ways still be present in that place. Another possibility is that in the face of feelings of helplessness, the memorials allow the bereaved to “do” something for the deceased. Often, only close family members are allowed input on preparations for funeral, gravesite, and burial plans, often excluding friends, colleagues, and committed life partners who can fill this void by participating in impromptu memorializations.

The “timing” issue noted by Haney et al. (1997) is also the source of criticism from some observers. Some research participants reported that “they are tired of being reminded of the fatality every time they pass a certain place” and that they think people “should move on with their lives.” Of course, more survey respondents reported support for roadside memorials than expressed criticism of them (student survey).

7. Spontaneous memorializations may include a political-social message about the cause of death, the implications of the death, or both. Artifacts show the communicative function of the sites as well as the desire to memorialize the deceased and warn others about dangerous sites or dangerous activities.

Impromptu memorials seem to serve numerous functions, including stating the name of the victim, stating the name of the bereaved, sending a message to the victim such as “you are missed,” and sending a message to society, such as the high societal and human cost of drunk driving. Additional communicative functions are seen in comments such as these: “We long for your voice,” which is a message to the deceased, and “How could you take them?” which may be a message to God or to the driver of the other vehicle. Many of the messages and artifacts seem to serve the purpose of affirming religious faith or at least acknowledging struggles with religious questions in the face of tragedy.

As per the student survey, the communicative function appeared to be quite effective in that numerous respondents stated that roadside memorials cause them to think and drive more carefully, at least for a while. A number of respondents reported that they would say a prayer for the mourners of the deceased.

Additional Observations

There is considerable overlap between the spontaneous memorializations spoken of by Haney et al. (1997) and the numerous memorials I have observed in my research. All seven of the characteristics of spontaneous memorials described by Haney et al. were supported by the findings of these observational activities, which are discussed next, beginning with the Texas Aggie bonfire tragedy.

Texas A&M University Bonfire Tragedy

Texas A&M University’s annual 40-foot, 4-tier bonfire fell suddenly on November 18, 1999, during the construction process. Twelve young adults were killed and 27 were injured. Students, alumni, and community members quickly began leaving personal mementoes on campus, which grew into four major on-campus memorial sites to the victims. A number of similarities emerged from a comparison between this impromptu memorial and other such sites; however, there were some interesting differences as well. What became evident is the strong compulsion for mourners to visit the site of the tragedy and to leave something there. Both actions appear helpful in the processing of one’s grief and the reconstruction of meaning following tragedy (Neimeyer 1998).

The spontaneously erected memorial to the Aggie bonfire victims shares similarities with other such memorials as described in Haney et al. (1997), with particular artifacts that appear to be spontaneous and others that are purposefully created by individuals and groups. Through an observation of the artifacts left at impromptu memorial sites, the function of visiting the site of the tragedy and of leaving artifacts can be inferred to serve as a mechanism for communicating with and about the deceased and, in some cases, a way of communicating with the bereaved. Memorializing in this fashion provides a variety of mourners a way to express their intense grief and remember the deceased. The importance of three themes—faith, hope, and remembering—emerged from a review of the data. At the Aggie site, “faith” included religious faith, specifically Christianity, as well as, faith in time-honored Aggie traditions. “Hope” appeared to be in reference to “recovery” and a reaffirmation of values and tradition. “Remembering” was focused on those who had died or were injured in the tragedy (Reid & Reid, 2001b).1

Planned and Spontaneous Memorials

In reference to other impromptu memorial sites, an interesting finding observed at many impromptu memorial sites was the unsmoked cigarettes placed in pack form at the base of the cross or placed individually on other parts of the memorial. In addition, a can (or cans) of beer may also be observed at the site, usually at the base of the cross. Similar artifacts have been observed in the exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which chronicles the artifacts left at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.

One might hypothesize that these artifacts may serve as a “toast” to or with the deceased. The cigarettes may be a way of sharing a “smoke” with a friend, a ritual that likely occurred when the deceased was alive. Sharing a drink and sharing a smoke are rituals that serve to build a sense of comradeship and to solidify friendships. In some cultures, pouring a drink on the grave of the deceased serves as a way of appeasing the spirit of the deceased. Although roadside memorials were not the place of burial, a similar symbolic purpose may be served in pouring the drink at the site of the death. The obvious irony of the placement of empty alcoholic beverage containers at the impromptu memorial sites is that several of these tragedies involved drug or alcohol usage by the deceased or by others involved.

Memorials to teenagers tended to be the largest, turning into shrines, which due to the passage of time, the growth of vegetation, and the weathering of artifacts often become “eyesores” if not maintained. In a newspaper guest editorial, the parent of an adolescent killed in a drunk-driving collision pleaded with his son’s friends to take down the site so that it could be replaced with a simple white cross consistent with Texas Department of Transportation and MADD guidelines (Coker 1997). The site has remained in its unmaintained state through the time of this writing. It is uncertain if any of those who had a part in erecting this memorial site had seen the newspaper story.

Although much can be inferred from an analysis of the artifacts left at impromptu memorials as well as from an observation of participant behavior, directly communicating with those who visit impromptu memorial sites adds additional insight into motivation and function of these sites. As mentioned earlier, a survey approach using questionnaires left at roadside memorials was used to gather this information.

An evident theme in the short-answer responses to the survey was anger, which was directed at the alleged perpetrator(s) of the collisions and also at me for the wording used in both the cover letter and the questionnaire, even though I asked several people who had experienced the death of a loved one because of an MVC take a look at these documents to afford optimum sensitivity of wording. Also, the director of Victim Services for MADD reviewed the materials and changes were made in response to these review efforts.

Another theme evident was that of ongoing legal proceedings regarding the MVC. One of the questions was about whether the visitor to a roadside memorial also made regular visits to the cemetery, and indeed, regular visits were made by most of these respondents to both the fatality site and the burial site. Respondents reported a variety of feelings, with this variation depending on whether they were at the roadside or at the cemetery. In other words, some felt more peace at the roadside than at the cemetery and others had the opposite reaction. Intense grief was evident for most of the respondents regardless of whether the fatality had occurred a few months previous to completion of the survey or several years previous. This finding is consistent with the literature on traumatic loss. As thanks to the respondents, the offer was made in the survey to request a brochure on grief, and all but one of the respondents included a return address to receive a brochure. Several respondents requested more than one of the choices. Of course, the sample size was small and generalizations should be made cautiously.

Survey of Nonbereaved Students

I have received numerous quizzical reactions from people when I’ve mentioned research regarding impromptu memorials. Responses varied from those who wondered why people would put memorials at some site when a cemetery was available to those who wondered if maintaining a memorial site long after the fatality wasn’t a sign of difficulty in grieving. Of course, many also showed understanding of the depth of grief resulting from sudden and violent death. Eleven of the respondents in the survey of college students reported that they had visited and left something at a roadside memorial, and 127 reported that they had at least seen a roadside memorial. In response to the question, “Do you feel like seeing a roadside memorial has influenced your driving behavior in any way?” responses were split fairly evenly between “yes” and “no.” These findings were surprising in that in numerous anecdotal reports people have said, “I didn’t notice them until you said you were studying them and now I see them all the time… and I think of you!” (I suppose that at least it’s nice to be thought of!) It was also encouraging that 50% of the respondents said that their driving behavior had been influenced. The hope of many mourners who have placed a memorial by the roadside—that the death of their loved one will not have been in vain—appears to be valid, at least as indicated by self-report. When asked what feelings they have had when seeing a roadside memorial, 46 respondents used the words sad or sadness in their responses. In responses to the question about why they think people would place a roadside memorial, themes of “remembering,” “respect for the deceased,” “grieving,” and “to warn others” were the most prominent.

Although there seem to be differences between roadside memorials and other impromptu memorials, valuable inferences can be drawn from this survey of opinions regarding roadside memorials and impromptu memorials.

Implications for Working with the Bereaved

Counselors, clergy, funeral directors, or others in a position of influence can emphasize the importance of caution and careful planning when working with those planning to visit the site of a fatal tragedy. The site of these tragedies, such as by the roadside or at the site of an unstable structure, are inherently dangerous. A news story told of a young woman who died from injuries received after being struck as a pedestrian while visiting the site of the fatal collision of her cousin with a group of family members following the funeral of that cousin (Wrolstad 1998). An even greater tragedy, at least in numbers, occurred when three brothers and one of their sons died in a small plane crash over the Rocky Mountains while attempting to scatter the cremated remains of their mother and grandmother who had died in a car accident (Frazier 1998). In spite of the value of memorialization, most would agree that it is not worth dying for.

Because reactions to public mourning behavior will vary, mourners may not receive a supportive response from others who either have not experienced that type of personal loss or did not feel affected by the death of a public figure, such as John F. Kennedy, Jr. Some prefer that other’s mourning behavior not intrude on them as they travel the roadway or attempt to enter or leave a residence or place of employment hindered by mourners and onlookers. Caregivers can prepare the bereaved for the diverse reactions they may receive from others. Memorialization is well documented and supported as part of the mourning process (Edgette 1996; Worden 2002), and a caregiver can assist the bereaved in memorializing in the safest and most meaningful way possible. The ongoing relationship of some mourners to the site of the fatality or a designated site provides support for the “continuing bonds” theory as reported by Klass, Silverman, and Nickman (1996), which emphasizes that rather than “letting go” of deceased loved ones, the bereaved may continue to relate to the deceased in a meaningful and emotionally healthy manner.


This chapter has shown that on both a spontaneous and planned basis, individuals and groups purposefully create impromptu memorials. Data gathering included surveys of both nonbereaved and bereaved persons as well as personal observations of memorial sites. Artifacts left at memorial sites include a variety of objects, some whose meaning is obvious and others whose meaning is idiosyncratic. The functions of the memorials can be inferred from data available at the site suggesting that impromptu memorials are meant to communicate with and about the deceased. Impromptu memorials also provide diverse mourners a way to express their intense grief and memorialize the deceased, thereby serving an important function for those who are grieving. One might wonder, however, what global interpretation might follow from these findings. It seems reasonable to infer that bringing private “cemetery” behavior out into the public arena may be making a comment on how impersonal society has become. One thinks of the large IMs such as at the World Trade Center or Oklahoma City, where strangers gather to bear their souls in front of others and leave heart-wrenching notes and artifacts. They make public their private experience. Roadside memorials, as well, bring into the open the private trauma of a few, forcing those who speed by to face the immanent danger of traveling the roadways. Society may indeed prefer that the grief of a few not be imposed on others, but the untidiness of the public expression of mourning may indeed be what our society needs to reaffirm and strengthen the human connection.