Roadside Memorials in the Czech Republic and Romania: Memory Versus Religion in two European Post-Communist Countries

Olga Nešporová & Irina Stahl. Mortality. Volume 19, Issue 1. 2014.


Since 1990 there has been a significant increase in the number of roadside memorials dedicated to the victims of sudden death, often people who met with death under tragic circumstances such as traffic accidents, in two European post-communist countries: the Czech Republic and Romania. A similar phenomenon has been reported in many other countries, where flowers, candles, crosses, stone plaques and other objects appear where tragic accidents have occurred. The simultaneous development of this particular mourning ritual across the globe, and it being so widespread, raises a number of questions. Do the reasons for establishing roadside memorials differ from one country to another? If so, what are the meanings attributed to them? And how do such memorials vary in their composition? Those that have emerged in the past two decades in Romania and the Czech Republic provide an interesting contrast and allow one to reflect upon such questions. Moreover, attention devoted to roadside memorials in Central and Eastern Europe has so far been scant (Nešporová, 2008, 2011; Rajković, 1988a, 1988b; Stahl, 2010, 2013) compared to other western societies. The terminology used in literature suggests that memorials are ‘spontaneous’ and can be considered ‘shrines’ (e.g. Bednar, 2011; Belshaw & Purvey, 2009; Doss, 2006; Santino, 2006; Westgaard, 2006). With regard to the Czech Republic and Romania, we agree that the places marked by roadside memorials assume a sacred meaning for the bereaved; however, we are less convinced of the presumed spontaneity. Rather, we believe that their creation has become a part of a collection of institutionalised mortuary rituals, applicable to cases of sudden death in the public domain. In other words, they are a culturally determined form of expressing grief.

In their comparison of roadside memorials in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, MacConville and McQuillan (2010) have shown that memorials are charged with different meanings in the two regions, regardless of their geographical proximity. Hence, we likewise pose a question as to their meaning with regard to two former Eastern Bloc countries. Although aware of the different meaning roadside memorials have from one person to another, our intention is to push the comparison to a national level that would not only reveal the general trends of this phenomenon, but also provide us with a window on both societies. As Metcalf and Huntington note, ‘[T]he issue of death throws into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed’ (1991, p. 25).

Following a presentation of the methodology employed, we will briefly introduce the historical and religious backgrounds of both countries. The next part will describe roadside memorials in their respective contexts followed by a section on the meanings attributed to memorials in the Czech Republic and Romania. Finally, a description will be provided of what aspects the comparison has brought to light.

Methodology and Research Samples

In our comparison, we follow Sharma’s idea of ‘reciprocal illumination’ (2005) so that the two cases shed light on each other. In applying the comparative method (Segal, 2001), we focus on the similarities and differences in the meanings attributed to the roadside memorials in each country. Research in the Czech Republic was conducted between 2005 and 2010. The research sample consisted of 100 roadside memorials from all over the country, but representativeness for the various regions was not strived for. Most of the memorials in the sample are located in Central and Northern Bohemia, but they provide adequate information on the appearance of Czech roadside memorials in general. Information on the attitudes of central and local traffic authorities towards the memorials was obtained by means of a study of written sources and telephone interviews. Attitudes of the general public were studied with the help of semi-structured face-to-face interviews with 30 middle-aged participants (30-50 years old) living in a small Central Bohemian town. This sample was gathered by using the snowball technique. Last, but not least, a case study of one roadside memorial, based on in-depth interviews with the people who maintained it, was conducted.

In the Romanian case, roadside memorials are visible all over the country and, despite a few regional differences, they are very much alike. Repeated fieldwork campaigns in Bucharest, conducted between 2000 and 2010, revealed a total number of 204 roadside memorials. Although distributed citywide they are densely packed in certain areas, while being totally lacking in others, as well as apparently being larger in number in the western part of the city (Stahl, 2010). The quantitative data provided information concerning the distribution in space and time of the memorials, but also about the persons to whom they had been erected. More information was gathered from indirect sources such as newspaper articles or directly, from short interviews with people in the area such as shopkeepers, neighbours or passers-by. Longer interviews with several priests who had been called upon to bless these memorials, as well as one in-depth interview with two members of a family who had lost two of their loved ones in a car accident and decided to erect a memorial to their memory, provided extra valuable information on the practices and beliefs accompanying this particular type of sudden death.

We are aware of our different research approaches, especially regarding details, and the gathering of miscellaneous data. Knowledge of this fact was present throughout our analytical work with the intent to minimise its negative outcomes.

Historical and Religious Context

To compare roadside memorials in the two countries it is necessary to know something of their social and cultural history. The Czech Republic, in central Europe, and Romania, in south-eastern Europe, have both experienced communism in their recent past and are currently part of the European Union. Developments over a longer term, however, must also be taken into consideration. Both countries have been under the influence of larger powers, but whereas Christianity has remained important in Romania, the inhabitants of the present Czech Republic have been more prone to secularisation.

While Czech society has historically had closer connections to German (and Austrian) culture and belonged to the Western Christian tradition with a prevalent Roman Catholic tradition, Romanian society has experienced multiple influences (Turkish, Slavic, French and German among others) and belonged to Eastern Christian tradition and the Orthodox Church. Consequently, after the dismantling of Austro-Hungary, at the end of the First World War, Czechs united with the neighbouring and more religious Slovaks, with whom they formed a state till 1993. Due to the national revival in the nineteenth century (stressing anti-Catholicism in opposition to the German element and Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) and for other historical reasons, a significant part of Czech society was anticlerical in the first half of the twentieth century. These attitudes were very much approved and supported during forty years of communist regime (1948-1989), when eradication of religion became one objective on the way leading towards a ‘better socialist society’. The weakening of the impact of the church was very successful and it has never been restored.

Romania, reuniting the former Ottoman allied principalities of Walachia and Moldavia, gained its independence from Turkish rule in 1878. In 1919, additional provinces that had been under Austro-Hungarian rule (Transylvania, Bukovina, Banat, Crișana and Maramureș) joined the national state. In their quest for national identity, Orthodox faith was an object of pride and a defining element for Romanians, along with their Latin origins and language which opposed them to Catholics and, mainly, to Muslim Turks. In their national mythology, Romanians often pictured themselves as saviours of Western Christianity, defeating Muslim conquests towards the West by their sacrifice (Boia, 1997, p. 180). This made it more difficult for the atheist communist regime (1948-1989) to eradicate religion. Instead it tried, by various means, to submit the church and use its social capital in constructing the ‘new society’. Churches were not closed down in Romania, but the religious practices, labelled as retrograde, were banned from the public domain. The political changes in 1989 marked a turning point, offering the Orthodox Church the opportunity of re-entering the public space with an important role of mediator in the ‘national reconciliation process’, especially during the commemoration of victims, when religious services were held and still are today. Since 1989, and especially in the past two decades, Romania has experienced a religious revival. Whereas elsewhere in Europe, as well as in the Czech Republic, the process of secularisation advances, post-communist Romania shows a reversal of the trend (Stahl & Venbrux, 2011).

According to the 2008 European Values Study (EVS, 2008), Czechs belong to one of the most secularised societies, as much as 70% of those surveyed declared not to belong to any religious denomination. Only a minority of the population attended church regularly (13% declared attending church at least once a month in the survey). However, similar to other countries (including Romania), some of the non-attendees still kept some kind of spiritual notion, such as belief in life after death, whereas those declaring themselves as Christians did not always share this belief. Nearly one out of three Czech respondents claimed to believe in life after death.

The same study pictures the Romanian society as one of the most religious, as only 2% of the respondents declared not to have a religion, while 87% proclaimed to be Orthodox. Nearly half also stated that they attended church at least once a month. According to Voicu (2009), the last three waves of the European Values Study (1990, 1999 and 2008) report a sharp rise in monthly church attendance in Romania since the beginning of the 1990s. Remarkably, the most spectacular increase was registered among persons born in the 1940s, who had been socialised under communist rule. Furthermore, urban church attendance went up from being significantly lower than in rural areas in 1993, to the same level in 2008. Over 80% of the people questioned during the European Values Survey taken in 2008, declared to believe in heaven and hell, while slightly less believed in life after death.

An overall idea about the measure of religiosity in Czech and Romanian society is given by the answers to the question ‘How important is God in your life?’ in the European Values Survey of 2008. Amongst 47 European countries, Czech society turned out to be the least religious (with a score of 3.9 out of 10), while Romania was one of the most (with a score of 8.7).

The Roadside Memorials: Resemblances and Differences

Although memorials have been in evidence along Czech roads since the 1960s, their presence was rare until the beginning of the 1990s since which time their number has increased rapidly. Roadside memorials in the Czech Republic are not officially regulated by either local or traffic authorities. However, most of them are in fact illegal since they have been erected on private land without the permission of the owner. Even though it is practically impossible to obtain permission from local and traffic authorities and private land owners for the construction of a roadside memorial, in the vast majority of cases they are not removed as nobody wishes, or dares, to remove them. Despite concern that memorials constitute a dangerous distraction for drivers, a number of collective, official roadside memorials have been erected by local authorities over the last decade to commemorate those who died as a result of accidents involving buses and trains, i.e. public rather than private transport. The motivation in this case seems not only to have been a public display of grief, or even a form of apology from local officials who might feel themselves indirectly to blame, but an attempt to discourage the erection of personal and illegal memorials at or near such sites.

The establishment of unofficial Czech roadside memorials is usually a gradual process, starting with temporary objects (flowers, candles, toys) at the location of the fatality. Such memorials either disappear over time or turn into more durable monuments made of fixed objects such as stone, concrete, wood, metal and glass. Despite the fact that the majority of Czech society is formed by unchurched and often also non-believers (see Hamplová & Nešpor, 2009; Nešporová & Nešpor, 2009), the main structure of the roadside memorials is frequently a cross (65% of the sample), usually wooden, less commonly metal. Another type is made of vertical plaques (22%). Others, with distinct features, cannot be included either category. Nearly all memorials consist of small objects, commonly flowers (artificial, cut or planted), candles and lanterns, showing that family members and friends of the deceased tend to visit on a regular basis. Occasionally more personal objects can be seen such as teddy bears, plastic toys, ceramic figures, hearts and clothes. There have even been examples of objects related to the hobbies and habits of the deceased such as an ice hockey stick, football boot, guitar, CDs, cigarettes and even condoms.

In over half of the cases, the dead are named on the Czech memorials. Roughly half include at least the year of death; some also include the exact date and birth date, or age, of the victim. Roughly a quarter also include a photograph. In approximately two- thirds of the cases we know something about the identity of the person commemorated. Taking the available data, victims are usually young (26 years of age on average), and most often male (68%). The gender division roughly corresponds with national statistics on traffic accident mortality. Roadside memorials were built, maintained and visited by bereaved people.

In the Romanian case, judging by the year of death inscribed on roadside memorials included in the sample, the oldest memorial registered in Bucharest dates from 1974. In all, fifteen memorials (7.3% of the sample) were erected before 1989, confirming the practice was ongoing under communism. This, however, was done in a rather discreet way, involving smaller and simpler monuments, mainly located at the periphery of the city, away from the eyes of officials and local authorities (Stahl, 2010). Soon after the violent events leading to the fall of communism in 1989, a multitude of memorials and monuments dedicated to the ‘heroes of the revolution’ rapidly spread across the Romanian capital. Some were erected in central places where many had lost their lives, at the initiative of victims’ associations or of local authorities eager to show their solidarity with bereaved people. Others appeared in front of military units which had suffered losses during the violent confrontations and also near churches. Regardless whose initiative was behind the memorials, the same cross-shape was to be seen in all. Little by little, the city became studded with crosses. It is in this context that the more discreet and unofficial roadside memorials started to appear in the city centre. Erected by families and friends, they bore a more personal touch by giving out the name, age and occupation of the victims, the circumstances of their death, adding pictures or a few words mentioning the sorrow felt by those left behind. Inspired by these, other roadside memorials soon followed, marking places where people’s lives ended under different circumstances, but as unexpectedly as those killed in 1989. Most are dedicated to victims of traffic accidents, but there are also others for victims of more unusual deaths such as drowning, falls, electrocutions, strokes, suicides, even murders. Despite the different ways in which the lives of the people commemorated ended, the memorials are of similar appearance. The only indications regarding the cause of death are occasionally given by the text inscribed on them, or by their particular location (e.g. on the river bank, under the windows of an apartment-building). Given this particularity, the term ‘roadside memorial’ is in this study used in a broad sense for the Romanian case, referring to memorials dedicated to all sudden death victims, regardless of its nature. The suitability of this term is discussed in greater detail in a separate article (Stahl, 2013).

Over the past two decades, the spread of roadside memorials in Bucharest has been considerable. The permissive legislation does not impose sanctions or restrictions on those who install them, either on public or private land. However, fearing that the city might start resembling ‘one big cemetery’, local authorities have constantly tried to discourage this. Public opinion is divided on this matter. There are those who find the practice macabre and those who show themselves to be more sympathetic. It is not uncommon to see people even cross themselves and mutter a short prayer after looking at the photo or text. Memorials are generally regarded with respect and even protected; to remove them would be considered callous, even sinful. Road workers interviewed have declared they only temporarily remove those situated on the roadside. Nevertheless, a number of the memorials initially registered have disappeared, mainly due to city planning.

Roadside memorials in Bucharest are mostly crosses (98% of the sample). Most are also metal (96.1%) which is long-lasting, cheaply available and durable (3.9% are marble or stone). A significant number (35.8%) are surrounded by protective fences, resembling graves. They are an extension of the ephemeral elements (usually burning candles, flowers, wreaths and photos) left at the scene of a sudden death, soon after it happened. In most cases, they are manufactured by craftsmen working in the funeral market which explains the high degree of homogeneity in design and the similarity with grave markers. Bereaved people usually purchase the memorials and install them within the month of the death. They take care to maintain them over time, cleaning, painting and sometimes even replacing them. Many are regularly adorned with flowers or seasonal ornaments (especially around Christmas). Burning candles or oil lamps are often lit next to them. Some memorials even feature special candle-holders, lanterns or small benches for visitors. More personal objects are rather rare.

With few exceptions (mainly due to deterioration), Romanian memorials are inscribed with the full name of the deceased, as well as dates for birth and death. Additional information, such as the circumstances of death, nickname, occupation, hometown or a photograph, is sometimes added. Shorter or exceptionally long texts have also been recorded, expressing the pain of the bereaved in simple prose or in rhyme. A few have religious connotations. The memorials are mainly dedicated to males (78.4%) aged 20-29 (20.8%). The age of the deceased ranges from 2 to 91 but nearly half are under thirty (47.2%). Six exceptional cases are dedicated to more than one person, who happened to die together.

Czech and Romanian roadside memorials have a number of resemblances but there are also significant differences. In both countries, roadside memorials were erected, albeit rarely, during the communist regimes. Furthermore, despite radically different attitudes towards religion within the two societies, the cross is the most common symbol used. However, whereas many non-believers in the Czech Republic mainly regard it as a sign of death and danger in relation to traffic accidents, in Romania the cross retains a very strong religious and devotional significance.

In general, Czech memorials vary much more in shape and materials than Romanian ones. Furthermore, they change gradually, over time, while in Romania, structures are fixed once installed. Romanian memorials, in addition, have a close resemblance to traditional graves. In the Czech Republic, contemporary graves do not feature crosses and roadside memorials lack the formality of the graves at cemeteries. Due to their do-it-yourself nature they display a greater creativity. That said, it must be noted that seasonal and common decorations (flowers, candles) do not differ between graves and memorials.

Romanian memorials feature much more information about people commemorated than in the Czech Republic where, more often, even the identity of the deceased is concealed. Nevertheless, from the available data, in both countries the victims commemorated are mostly young males.

Roadside memorials are part of the mortuary rituals and the mourning process related to sudden death. Nevertheless, while their intrusion into the public space makes them an exception in the Czech society, where the tendency is rather to hide death than to openly show it (Přidalová, 1998), in the Romanian society, where death and caring about the dead are part of everyday life, they are less conspicuous. In the Czech Republic, minimising and even omitting funeral ceremonies is becoming more common (Nešporová, 2007). In Romania, religious funeral ceremonies and commemorations of the dead are the rule. Funeral convoys or people wearing mourning clothes on the streets are not unusual.

In comparing the two cases, the most revealing aspect appears to be the meanings attributed to memorials by those who built them. Stemming from different cultural contexts, with radically different religious attitudes, the meanings also illustrate two different contemporary approaches to death. In developing this idea, we reject, as Kennerly (2002) before us, the sacred-secular duality, as we consider that the sacred character is inherent to roadside memorials, and results from the special meaning they, and the place they mark, have for bereaved people. Instead, we propose the key concepts of memory and religion. Rather than being exclusive or opposed, these two concepts appear to be interconnected. Remembering is part of the religious tradition. Nevertheless, religion not only offers remembrance of the victims worldly past, but it also deals with the victim’s otherworldly future. Introducing the idea of an afterlife and the existence of the soul, religion adds a prospective dimension to roadside memorials. This is why, in the Romanian case, one could say that they not only indicate the end of a life but also the beginning of the afterlife. However, it does not eliminate the retrospective dimension, as they also continue to be memorials, dedicated to a person whose existence they evoke. Romanian roadside memorials thus imply both religious and memory aspects, while the Czech ones seem to focus more on the latter, as the religious aspects faded away. The process is, in the Czech case, similar to the one described by Henzel when analysing the Mexican cruces, ‘An element of the cultural landscape which once had a spiritual or perhaps even supernatural significance is being replaced with a marker of purely human grief and remembrance’ (1991, p. 100).

Further details on the meaning-making process in the two countries will be given as follows. In order to avoid redundancy, we will focus on memory in the Czech case, leaving the religious aspects to be discussed subsequently in the Romanian case.

Memory and Czech Roadside Memorials

Czech roadside memorials are sites of memory at which material objects are placed to evoke memories of the dead. In this sense, they have a similar purpose to graves, statues, images and the residual belongings of the dead (Hallam & Hockey, 2001). They help to keep memories alive and support the memory-making process, they work against the terror of forgetting, and they provide the deceased with social identities in the world of the living. This aspect is especially distinctive when compared to graves in cemeteries. While the latter are placed in special restricted areas dedicated to dead people, roadside memorials are present in the public space. The Czech use of roadside memorials supports the theory outlined by Howarth who discusses dismantling the boundaries between life and death in contemporary western societies (2007, pp. 265-266). The presence of death in everyday life is most strikingly visible in the case of unexpected deaths and tragedies; not only in terms of the time death occurs (in the middle of a life), but also in terms of the way in which people react to such events. The huge media interest in tragic stories does not originate from nowhere, rather it responds to social demand, at least to some extent. If ‘modernity has established a separation between life and death’ as Howarth argued (2007, p. 265), the quiet approval of the placing of private memorials in public places can be read as a sign of the postmodern return of death to the world of the living and a blurring of the boundaries between them.

The public memorialisation of violent events, as well as the deceased, is the main purpose of memorials (Clark & Cheshire, 2004). Applying the concept of memory as espoused by French historian Nora (1984-1992), Czech roadside memorials can be regarded as explicit signs, lieux or places of memory which are essential for the process of memory-making in contemporary societies. According to Nora, contemporary societies no longer experience their collective memories and do not reproduce their implicit meanings. Earlier milieux were replaced by lieux de memoire (Olick & Robbins, 1998). Such places clearly help to maintain a certain level of continuity over time, even though it is limited to its lifetime, as Bednar pointed out (2011).

Roadside memorials not only memorialise people and their past lives. In terms of reminding the public of sudden and tragic death, they can also be seen as places of absence (Meyer, 2012) or, paraphrasing Nora, as lieux d’absence. Nevertheless, while ‘the cemetery is an institutionalised place for memorialising absence’ (Meyer, 2012, p. 106), roadside memorials have a pronounced personal character, allowing more freedom with regard to the expression of grief.

More than half of the memorials in the Czech sample were found to be intentionally solid and durable; indeed durability plays an important role since grief is perceived as never-ending. Jane, the mother of Peter, who died at the age of 27 in a road accident, visited the site of the tragedy daily for one year following his death. The memorial was created by Jane, her younger son and husband. Creating and maintaining the memorial was (and five years after the accident, still is) a part of the mourning process.

Peter’s memorial consisted of a wooden cross (with his name, dates of birth and death, and a quotation from Molière) fixed in a concrete base, a number of stone niches for the placing of relevant objects (photographs, fresh flowers, lanterns, candles, hearts) and two ornamental trees. Jane explained why she and her husband planted the trees next to the memorial thus: ‘At least the cypress trees will continue to grow there once we are no longer here.’ Jane hoped that the memorial would remain in place for many years, commemorating her lost son even after her own death. The presence of the two trees has a strong symbolic meaning, not only serving as a long-lasting memory, reinforced by the memorial, but also pointing towards life. The place was, for Jane, associated more with Peter’s life than with his death. This was the last place her son was alive. It was also the place from which she communicated with him. Visiting the site became a habit; she would light a candle, bring fresh flowers and commemorate her lost son. She explained:

I’m pulled towards it. And whenever we do not go there with my husband [who drives me] in the evening, I say to myself: ‘I did not even go to wish him good night’.

The site of the tragedy was more important for her than Peter’s grave and she visited the site significantly more often than the grave. She explained what it meant to her:

Peter lost his life there. His dead body lay there on the ground. I don’t know, I was never a believer, but his soul was there for a while. By establishing the memorial I would like everybody who passes by to be more careful, cautious, so that they realise that even at such a normal road intersection anything can happen. Well, something [bad] can happen anywhere.

Such an explanation also reveals the fact that Czech memorials are not built as a result of religious beliefs. Spiritual feelings are, however, involved, proving once more that there is no such thing as a completely desacralised society (Eliade, 1987). In a similar way to that evidenced in a number of western countries (the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand), for bereaved people who establish and visit a memorial, the place assumes a sacred character whether or not they are church-affiliated (Clark & Franzmann, 2006; Hartig & Dunn, 1998; Klaassens, Groote, & Huigen, 2009; Reid & Reid, 2001; Smith, 1999). Religion plays a minor role in terms of the construction and maintenance of most Czech roadside memorials; indeed it is possible that this very lack of a religious tradition has contributed towards the creation of a new secular rite which includes a number of spiritual aspects.

Religion and Romanian Roadside Memorials

Current roadside memorials in Bucharest must be situated and understood in a complex religious context, in which orthodox traditions regarding death are closely interlinked with remnants of ancient folk practices and beliefs of countrywide origin. Marking the place of a sudden death with a cross appears to be an old and widespread custom in Romania. It is mentioned by folklore collectors since the late nineteenth century, although historical sources have proven it to be much older. Crosses erected by family or friends of the deceased were meant as a reminder of the tragedy but also had the function of keeping the devil—whom one held responsible—away from that place, thus preventing recurrence (Marian, 1892, p. 349). The magnitude of the tragedy was in the fact that it concerned a particular kind of death: sudden, unexpected and therefore unprepared for. As in many other traditional societies (Van Gennep, 2004, p. 160), these extraordinary circumstances were considered highly dangerous for the soul of the deceased, as well as for the community of the living. Sudden death was therefore deeply deplored and feared. The entire community would mourn those whose life had ended unexpectedly, since they had died alone, without anyone to light a candle for them. The presence of light was essential, as it was believed to clear the way for the soul into the world beyond, helping it to reach its Creator. In the absence of light, bad spirits could interfere, misleading the soul from the right path and thus causing it to wander the world of the living, disturbing it. This threat could be avoided only by the performance of specific rituals (Ciubotaru, 1999, pp. 47-48; Marian, 1892, pp. 24-34, 349-350).

One could ask oneself to what extent ancient folk practices and beliefs are still actually present in Romanian contemporary society, especially in the urban environment. Since, at this point, it is too early to answer this question, suffice it to say for now that people who die without the necessary rituals are still treated with special concern in Bucharest. Thus, it is not uncommon to see expressions as ‘unprepared dead’, ‘dead without light’ or ‘without a candle’, ‘dead without the last Eucharist and the last confession’, or even ‘dead in a car accident, without a candle and without the last Eucharist’ mentioned in the pomelnice (lists of names handed over to the priest for the purposes of prayer). This practice, however, is not encouraged by the Church.

The unexpected nature of the deaths commemorated by roadside memorials in Bucharest is not only a question of the way they occur, but also a question of age: in nearly half of the registered cases, the memorial pertains to young or very young people, which similarly implies an untimely death (Kligman, 1998; Venbrux, 1991). In traditional societies, dying before one’s time, thus before accomplishing one’s life, requires the performance of extraordinary funeral rituals, the widespread Romanian ‘wedding of the dead’ (Kligman, 1998; Marian, 1892) being no exception (Venbrux, 1991, p. 193). However, to what extent these are performed in relation to present day roadside memorial victims in Bucharest, remains to be investigated.

Erecting a roadside memorial in Bucharest is not always followed by an orthodox religious service. However, when this is the case, it is usually the priest from the nearest church who officiates, in the year following the tragedy. The service can later be repeated during the periodic commemorations which follow. Marking the place where someone died is not compulsory under the doctrine of the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, erecting a cross is considered proof of Christian devotion and thus a meritorious gesture. No specific service for roadside memorials is mentioned in religious textbooks. In this particular case, as in few others, the priests adapt their service for the occasion and choose what they consider to be suitable prayers. According to the five priests interviewed, a shortened version of the funeral service is performed in this case. It begins with prayers meant to appease the soul of the deceased, followed by prayers meant to bless the cross raised in the place where it left its body. As well as the cross raised at the grave, the roadside memorial cross is invested with a protective function, in order to keep away ‘all visible or invisible enemies, all the actions and temptations of the devil’ (Aghiazmatar, 1984, pp. 324-326; Molitfelnic, 1975, pp. 281-283). During the service, the cross, as well as the ground around it are passed over with incense (tămâie) and sprinkled with holy water (aghiazmă). This enhances their sacred character and would, according to the priests, justify surrounding them with a protective fence, meant to avoid possible damage and staining. Candles are burnt and ceremonial breads (prescure) are brought over, as well as the traditional wheat-grain porridge of the dead (colivă).

Fifty-two year old Smaranda regretted not having organised a religious service at the roadside memorial commemorating her daughter, Eliza, and her granddaughter Gabi. Although the eleven year old girl actually died four days after her mother who was instantly killed in the car accident, for Smaranda and her family they both died in the same place. The big, black iron cross marking the scene of the tragedy had been purchased from a funeral shop and erected soon after the funerals. ‘This is the rule in our country, as it is the place where the soul goes away’, Smaranda said. Taken by grief and by the numerous mortuary rituals that had to be taken care of since the accident, Smaranda had postponed the religious service till a later date. But as the one year commemoration approached, she was more determined than ever to contact a priest and have it done. In the meantime, she had taken the matter into own hands and already sprinkled the roadside memorial cross and the place around it with holy water. She used the same water that had previously served in blessing the marble crosses at the graves during a special religious service (parastas) held six months after the funerals. Back then, Smaranda intentionally kept the remaining holy water, in order to use it on the unblessed roadside memorial. This action, and the ones that followed, are a good illustration of the ritual multiplication nowadays to be encountered in Bucharest (Stahl & Venbrux, 2011).

Numerous funerary rituals are currently performed in Romania. Beside various local traditions, the Orthodox Church recommends periodical prayers, religious services and almsgivings, in the name of the deceased. These have to be carried out on specific dates. The rituals performed three, six, nine and forty days after death are considered to be the most important, as they relate to the journey of the soul in the world beyond (Măndiță, 1995, pp. 77-91). According to the Bible, soon after death the soul visits different familiar places on Earth (Măndiță, 1995, pp. 77-78). Specific Romanian folk beliefs referring to the wanderings of the soul vary (Marian, 1892, pp. 422-447); nevertheless, a few places are regularly mentioned: the soul returns to visit the house in which it lived during its lifetime, the place where it was separated from its body and the grave where the body lies. As these are emotionally charged places, it is believed that the soul might encounter difficulties in detaching itself from them, thus delaying its journey into the world beyond. From Smaranda’s account, this is what happened to Eliza. Shortly after the accident, one of her sisters dreamt of her standing alongside the road where she got killed, asking to be taken away from that place. The very next morning, Smaranda went to the roadside memorial and smoked it with burning incense, going around it a couple of times. Shortly after, she repeated the gesture, just in case once was not enough. The ritual she performed was meant to release her daughter’s soul, helping it to continue its journey and finally find its peace.

Being the communication gate with the world beyond (Dorondel, 2004, pp. 210-215), dreams set the rhythm of the rituals performed for the deceased. It is through dreams that Eliza and her daughter indicated their needs and wishes and also expressed their contentment or discontentment. Thus, before the marble crosses were placed at their graves, Gabi told her grandmother, in a dream, the text she wanted to have engraved on hers. Soon after the graves were finalised, Eliza expressed her joy about moving into a new home, with garden, in a dream one of her sisters had. For Smaranda, this clearly meant her daughter was content with the grave they made for her. On another occasion, Eliza asked for a chicken for her daughter to play with in the garden. This dream was apparently pointing out an omission made during the young girl’s funerals, when the family could not get a chicken to ritually pass under the coffin, before offering it as almsgiving, as custom required. The following day, Smaranda hurried to get a chicken and gave it away, in the name of her granddaughter, and thus finally accomplish the missing ritual.

From the Church’s point of view, the purpose of almsgivings is to bring more people to pray for the soul of the deceased. However, according to the general belief, everything that is given away on the occasion actually reaches the dead in the world beyond. It is believed that the soul of the departed continues to experience the same needs as during its lifetime: the soul gets thirsty which is why, in various regions in Romania, as well as in Bucharest in earlier times, memorial crosses for the dead are located near wells or other water sources (Dorondel, 2004; Larionescu, 2000). The soul also experiences hunger, which is why, during commemorations, one offers food in almsgiving and/or organises banquets. For the same reason, fruit trees (usually apple or plum trees) are planted next to the graves in cemeteries, feeding the souls of the dead with their fruit. In this regard, it should also be noted that present day roadside memorials in Bucharest are often situated next to trees. Smaranda organised numerous almsgivings for her daughter and granddaughter. They took place during the accustomed commemorations dates and also on their birthdays, name days and during holidays generally dedicated to the dead. At the almsgiving (pomana), organised six months after their death, she invited people to her home for a commemoration meal. On the occasion, she provided the clothes for a girl her granddaughter’s age. She also gave away her granddaughter’s bicycle, roller skates and sledge. For the next great almsgiving, one year after their death, she was planning to buy, and give away, furniture. Despite being told by the priest that this was unnecessary, she insisted because: ‘How could I not give away all these things, when my daughter told us she moved into a new home?!’ Using her own words, Smaranda made the offerings so that her daughter and granddaughter would not miss anything in the world beyond.

Since the tragedy, two or three times a week, Smaranda sets off on a long journey across town (occasionally taking up to five hours). She first stops at the roadside memorial, then continuous to the graveyard. During her visits she cleans up the places and adds fresh flowers. She lights candles and oil lamps and prays for the souls of the departed. Sometimes she burns incense. The two places are equally meaningful to her, as they both remind her of her daughter and granddaughter. She feels it is her duty to take care of them and doing so brings her inner peace.


As some authors point out, death has become more and more hidden from everyday life in modern Western societies (Ariès, 1975, 1977; Gorer, 1967; Elias, 1985). What has, however, been ignored until now, is the fact that a similar process, grounded on ideological reasons this time, also took place in Central and Eastern Europe. Eager to preserve the appearance of their ‘ideal socialist societies’, the communist regimes of Czechoslovakia and Romania passed death under silence. There was neither time for grieving, nor for performing ‘retrograde’ religious rituals here, as people were expected to put all their vital energies into the building of the new socialist society. The dramatic events that led to the fall of communism in Romania in 1989 drastically changed these facts. The brutal pictures, broadcast on the national TV station, showing hundreds of people being killed on the streets and the Ceauşescu couple executed, marked the official come-back of death into the public sphere. The tragic death of anti-communist victims created an emotional opening that encouraged the public commemoration of dead and implicitly, later on, led to the increase in roadside memorials. In the former Czechoslovakia, the political change was less dramatic. The so-called ‘Velvet revolution’ was relatively peaceful and even the splitting of Czechoslovakia into two independent states, in 1992, passed off quietly. We argue, that in spite of the differences, the sharp increase in the number of roadside memorials in both countries since 1990 can be explained by regaining of the freedom of public expression. Given the predominant cross shape of roadside memorials in Romania and the religious revival registered after 1990, one could at first be led into believing that the increase in the number of memorials was determined principally by the regained freedom of religion. However, with the same increase registered in a progressively secularised Czech society, this statement needs to be nuanced. It was not only about the regained freedom of religion, but rather about the more general freedom of being able to express one’s feelings in the public space, grief and mourning included.

Employing Walter’s classification of the social context of death and bereavement (1999, p. 186, 2002, pp. 47-65), Czech society is characterised by many postmodern (or neo-modern) trends. Self retains authority over death which is well illustrated in the grieving process. Building and maintaining memorials is a very private matter even in public spaces. As Walter argues ‘private experience becomes public’ (1999, p. 186) and there is no rule, nor authority, to prescribe the building and maintaining of memorials as part of the mourning process. The bereaved are guided only by their feelings and inner spirituality. In the Romanian case, the traditional approach means that religion—including the Orthodox tradition as well as ancient folk practices and beliefs—holds authority over death. The erecting and maintaining of roadside memorials form a part of a collection of pre-established mortuary rituals. The Czech case might be considered part of a need for new, publicly recognised rituals in reaction to increasingly privatised and individualised mourning in contemporary societies as indicated by Wouters (2002).

Concluding from our case studies presented, the motivation behind establishing memorials, in cases of sudden death, appears to be primarily for the survivors in the Czech case and for the deceased in the Romanian one. In both cases, these memorials serve as a bond between the deceased and the bereaved, encouraging communication. However, in the Czech Republic, ‘sense of loss’ to the living is emphasised in the grieving process over a sudden death; while in Romania, the destiny of the soul of the deceased, through religious practices and ritualised behaviour, is given precedence. Erecting memorials is perceived as one of the duties the bereaved have towards the dead and which, once accomplished, brings them consolation in return.

The comparison between Czech and Romania roadside memorials has certainly shed light on each case, not only by revealing unique local particularities but also by bringing up fundamental social and cultural values of the two societies, as Metcalf and Huntington noted (1991).