Roadside Crosses and Memorial Complexes in Texas

Roadside Crosses and Memorial Complexes in Texas

Holly Everett

In response to a number of recent discussions of death customs, including the selection and placement of funeral flowers and the erection and maintenance of roadside shrines (Drury 1994; Walter 1996; Monger 1997; Smith 1999), I would like to present a brief overview of similar traditions practised in central Texas. I completed a master’s thesis in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland in August 1998 on roadside crosses erected in memory of automobile accident victims, primarily those extant in the Austin area. [1] The thesis encompassed thirty-five memorial sites, most of which still stand. In addition, a number of new crosses have gone up in the metropolitan area since I completed my fieldwork in the spring of 1998.

Roadside crosses adorn the roadways of many regions of the USA. In the south-western states, the roadside shrine tradition dates back to the early days of Spanish exploration and settlement in the Americas (see, for example, De Leon 1963, 417; Berlandier 1980, 284; Barrera 1991, 278). Syncretism between Catholic and native belief systems resulted in vigorous and unique shrine customs from Florida to California (Kozak and Lopez 1991; Griffith 1992; Edgette 1997; Owens 1997; Zimmerman 1997). Crosses erected along Texas roadways today reflect varying belief systems and aesthetics, ranging from traditional Catholic shrines topped by nichos (a small niche in which religious icons are placed), to crosses inscribed with quotations from popular cinema. [2]

As I have stated, the bulk of my thesis explores the roadside cross memorials of Texas’s capital city, Austin. Whereas roadside crosses in the USA have historically been, and in many cases continue to be, a rural phenomenon, the Austin metropolitan area’s active roadside cross tradition is distinctly urban. Shrines are erected on busy street corners adjacent to megastores and fast food restaurants, in the medians of multilane roadways and freeways, and on private property. Such memorials incorporate any number of changing elements, including flowers (both fresh and artificial), toys, photographs, ceramic figurines, handwritten notes, religious objects (saint statuettes and pictures, rosaries), seasonal decorations such as Christmas ornaments or Easter eggs, and car parts collected from the wreckage of the inciting accident. Crosses are often, although not always, the centrepieces of these memorial assemblages.

Scholars and other writers often comment upon Austin’s unique character, as a liberal and progressive city in a generally conservative state (see, for example, Grider 1999). One county official whom I interviewed cited the city’s comparatively radical attitudes as a reason for the plethora of roadside memorials, an expression of grief, affection and creativity to which Austin residents feel they have a right (Reed 1997). Furthermore, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) spokesperson John Hurt asserted that Austin’s political status, as state capital, contributed to a “hands-off” attitude toward the memorials on the part of city, county and state officials who do not wish to upset or offend their constituencies (1997).

Texas’s cultural heritage is another contributing factor in the character of Austin area residents’ expressive behaviour. For example, the state’s religious composition historically includes a melding of Spanish Catholicism, aboriginal people’s belief systems, and various Protestant denominations, perhaps most notably Southern Baptist (Ramos 1997, 486). In fact, a breakdown of Texas’s population by religion reveals a marked split between Catholics and Baptists, manifesting itself in a north–south divide. The Austin metropolitan area, a part of Travis County, sits squarely on the figurative ideological border, with Catholics making up a slight majority (Ramos 1997, 488-9). Thus, Austin area memorials may be read as a manifestation not only of grief and affection for a loved one suddenly departed, but also as highly representative of the region’s cultural syncretism, as my research demonstrates. Contemporary memorials in Austin are erected by people of varying religious affiliations. Indeed, most of my principal informants were Protestants of various denominations who did not identify roadside memorialisation as a practice “belonging” to any specific group.

Some area residents attribute the increasing appearance of such memorials in the city, however, to the erection of the first Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) memorial cross in south Austin in 1984. Jennifer Solter, a retired nurse originally from Manitoba, brought the handcrafted, white wooden cross to Austin three years after founding the Heart of Texas chapter of MADD in 1981 after her daughter, Sara, died in an alcohol-related auto accident earlier that year. Sara’s cross established the pattern for all MADD crosses in the Austin area. Crosses erected through the Heart of Texas MADD chapter are white, two-foot high structures bearing a red plastic plaque at the crosspiece (Fig. 1). Each plaque bears the accident victim’s name, and dates of birth and death in the following manner:

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

IN LOVING MEMORY OF SARA JAYNE SOLTER BORN 10/20/61 & KILLED AT THIS

LOCATION 8/14/81 BY A DRUNK DRIVER

The Heart of Texas MADD chapter chose to use the cross as an official symbol, Jennifer said, because “the cross would call attention to a death.” Indeed, in Texas, roadside crosses are so commonplace, and knowledge of MADD so widespread, that although not all North American MADD chapters sponsor a roadside cross memorialisation programme, passers-by often associate all such roadside memorials with drunk driving incidents.

While MADD crosses are the only legally approved roadside memorials in the Austin district [3], they are in the minority of the Austin area’s roadside shrines. For example, of the forty-four crosses included in my study, only three were MADD crosses. Moreover, not all alcohol-related accidents commemorated by roadside memorials include a MADD cross. Thus, other Austinites point to a perceived increase in fatal accidents in general as the reason behind the city’s growing number of shrines.

Austin area high schools, in particular, have lost a number of students to automobile accidents in recent years. One informant told me that James Bowie High School, in south Austin, constructed a memorial park near the school because of the high number of deaths the school has suffered (Lamay 1997). Since 1992, six Bowie students have died from injuries sustained in five separate accidents. At least three of these students have been remembered with roadside memorials.

The memorial to Bowie students Heather Lamay and Lisa Wendenburg, erected by classmates on the evening of the young women’s fatal accident in January 1996, originally consisted of two temporary crosses which stood on private property near the accident site until a cement cross replaced them. The memorial was constructed with the permission and cooperation of the property owners, whose backyard is bordered by the road on which the accident occurred. After erecting the cross, and painting it white, Heather and Lisa’s friends bordered it with rocks placed in the shape of a heart. Heather’s parents, Shilah and John Lamay, contributed a granite plaque, encasing a photograph of the women, to the memorial (Lamay 1997). Shilah and John later removed the cross and border, at the request of the TxDOT, to make way for a road-widening project planned for the four-lane road in south Austin. They attached the granite plaque to a nearby telephone pole. Before the Lamay family moved to another state in mid-1997, Shilah removed the plaque as well. Responsibility for any future memorialisation activity at the accident site was turned over to a family friend.

Although Shilah and her husband supported the teenagers’ memorialisation efforts, Shilah stated that while the memorial at the accident site was extremely important to Heather and Lisa’s friends, visiting Heather’s grave site at the cemetery was more important to Shilah and her children (Fig. 2). In fact, Shilah was doubtful that she and her family would have chosen to erect a memorial at the accident site themselves, saying:

[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I don’t know that I myself would have necessarily–like, in Oregon and

California where we’re from, you never see it. I don’t know that we

would’ve thought to do it if we hadn’t lived in Texas, and it’s something

you see frequently. But I have to say that … it was kind of nice just to

drive by and see, just, that there was a memory of what had happened there,

you know (Lamay 1997).

In addition, Shilah and her family bought a stock trailer, bearing a memorial plaque, for the Bowie High School chapter of Future Farmers of America (in which Heather had been very active) with donated memorial funds. She emphasised that both the trailer and the grave site meant more to the Lamay family than the roadside memorial.

Bowie students suffered the loss of another classmate just over a year later when the truck in which Heather Werchan was a passenger crashed into a tree after the driver, Heather’s boyfriend, lost control of the vehicle on a four-lane divided road which runs in front of the school. The young man built and erected the cross, along with another of Heather’s friends, soon after Heather’s death in an Austin hospital. Heather’s father, James, said:

They [the young men] decided to put the cross up and it was, I guess it was

probably about a week after the accident or after the funeral that they put

it up. They decided to put it up. It was very, you know, the thought and

having it there is really good. You know, because it is a reminder for two

things, you know. Of Heather, of course, and the other is for people just

to slow down and be more cautious, too, of people that are dying because of

traffic accidents.

The cross is indeed a powerful and eye-catching reminder that a fatal accident took place there. At approximately 4.5 ft x 4.5 ft, the cross is the largest I have documented within city limits (Fig. 3).

[Figure 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

“Heather” is spelled out in large, pine green letters which hang across the horizontal piece. When I photographed the cross in December 1997, strands of silk sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, orange marigolds, autumn-coloured leaves and other greenery were intertwined about both pieces of the structure. A stuffed teddy bear, with a plastic-covered photograph of a young woman attached to its right foot with purple ribbon, sat on the horizontal near the transverse and a ring of purple silk miniature roses. Higher up and around the vertical, a visitor had placed a Bowie graduation tassel (in school colours of red and black). Sitting atop the vertical were five pennies. Green wooden letters also indicated Heather’s middle and last initials on the bottom half of the vertical.

Although the cross still stands just east of Bowie High School, it is regularly repainted and redecorated by the young man and his mother, who also care for a miniature rose bush they planted nearby. Heather’s father and mother routinely change the flowers at the base of the cross, and mow the grass around the memorial. James, said, “And I mow the grass, you know, on the other side of the tree and a pretty good ways back away from the cross toward Bowie. So I keep it looking nice and maintain it.” The fact that James mows the median is extraordinary in that this kind of maintenance would generally be undertaken by city or county road crews. The Werchans have never been asked by any city official to move, or otherwise alter the memorial.

As with the Lamay family, however, the Werchans view Heather’s burial site as the primary locus of memorialisation. Heather is buried in a non-denominational, historic cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The older section, its worn stone and granite markers dating back to the 1870s, is readily distinguishable from the newer, larger section with the flat, inset stones more typical of modern “memorial parks.” The cemetery grounds border pastureland, and visitors share the pastoral settings with horses, Texas longhorns and occasionally, wild deer. The Werchans felt the site to be particularly appropriate because of Heather’s love of the outdoors.

James noted that, although the regulations for the new section of the cemetery are similar to those in force at the cemetery where Heather Lamay is buried, the Werchans, and other visitors, generally disregard them. He said:

Yeah, that’s part of the new section that you’re not supposed to have that,

also, out there. But we do it anyway. And we’re not the only ones. We’ve

got the vase, of course, that’s in the headstone. You know other people

have left, my sister left a cat laying down, one of these concrete-cast

cats. And we’ve got an angel that’s standing up, it’s made out of concrete,

and so we, you know, people leave vases with flowers in it and things like

that and animals. You know, we maintain it good ourselves, you know, we

take care of it, we don’t let it grow up. So, we feel that, I mean

it’s–even though the rules and requirements say that you’re not supposed

to, our feeling, and most of the other people’s feelings too, it’s that as

long as it’s kept nice that, you know, hey, you know, it’s our loved one

here.

When I visited Heather’s grave site in December 1997, the headstone was flanked by potted poinsettias, fresh carnations, a Christmas wreath and several angel figurines (Fig. 4). Indeed, regardless of any stated policy, the markers in this section were adorned with tributes and remembrances of all kinds, including framed photographs, key chains, coins, stuffed animals and miniature flags. Many of the trees bore holiday decorations and wind chimes.

[Figure 4 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Thus, as demonstrated by the memorial complexes maintained by Sara Solter, Heather Lamay and Heather Werchan’s families, relatives and friends of automobile accident victims in Austin may extend traditional memorialisation practices, such as holding a funeral, marking the burial site with a headstone and other remembrances and visiting the cemetery on certain anniversaries, to include the construction and maintenance of a memorial at the place of fatal injury or death. While Sara’s mother erected a roadside cross as a direct, political statement supported by the efforts of an international organisation (MADD), the Lamays and the Werchans assumed a great deal of responsibility for memorials originally constructed by others, a pattern that runs through several of my informants’ experiences.

As posited by George Monger, many Austin residents–including both those directly connected to a roadside cross and unrelated passers-by–view such memorials as powerful warnings about the danger of automobile travel in general, and about treacherous intersections, curves or other road conditions in particular. Shilah Lamay, Jennifer Solter and James Werchan all stated that if the memorials to their children result in just one person driving more cautiously, they are certainly worth the effort to construct and maintain them. As Monger also notes, however, the primary function of many roadside memorials is simply to “visit and mark the site of a tragedy” (Monger 1997, 114). Moreover, for some of those whom I interviewed, the accident site was the last place where their loved one was conscious, and thus really “alive,” regardless of the place of clinical death.

Susan Crane’s son Nathan was fatally injured in 1991 when the car in which he was a passenger veered off a road in north central Austin and struck a tree. The driver of the vehicle, Tammy Franklin, and another passenger, Jeffrey Suggs, were also killed. Although Nathan actually died in the hospital a few days after the accident, Susan feels drawn to memorialise him at the accident site, more so than anywhere else, because that is where she believes his spirit was last on earth. Tammy died on impact when her car struck the tree. Thus, her mother, Margie, views the accident site as the place where “everything ended and began,” and concentrates her decoration of the site on the tree, which is still scarred from the crash. Susan and Margie took responsibility for a memorial at the accident site initiated by the teenagers’ classmates at Hyde Park Baptist High School, and have redecorated the site together in the past.

The small wooden crosses which the teens constructed and erected in memory of all three accident victims were twice pulled up, the other remembrances indiscriminately scattered nearby, by unknown parties. After the second instance, Susan and her partner, an ironworker, set a wrought iron cross in a cement base at the site. The cross is further secured by iron hooks which extend, from its base, through the cement block. Susan repaints the cross from time to time.

Susan arranges her visits seasonally. When I spoke with her in January 1998, she was preparing to replace all the flowers with some winter blooms, after which she would replace those with an arrangement for Valentine’s Day. In the event that Susan plans to be out of town at the time that the flowers need to be changed, she makes arrangements for someone to take new flowers to the site for her. Every time she changes the flowers at the site, she also changes them at Nathan’s grave site. [4] Although Margie was very reluctant to visit the accident site at first, she now goes there, usually with her husband, at certain times each year–on the anniversary of the accident, Tammy’s birthday, Easter Sunday and Christmas Day. While she visits the cemetery more often, she emphasised that the roadside cross is extremely important to her, and that she and Susan “would do everything they could” to keep some kind of memorial at the accident site, as they “would always want a reminder to people to be careful” and it has become an integral part of preserving Tammy’s memory. [5]

The experiences of my informants, as detailed here, point to a strong connection between activity at a death-site memorial and at the site of interment. Indeed, in other cases in which I did not make contact with anyone directly involved with the construction or maintenance, a correlation between the two sites was readily apparent. For example, Carmen Cortinas Vela’s death is commemorated by a white cross which flanks the interstate highway on which she died in a head-on collision in May 1997. In December of that year, the cross was decorated with a large red ribbon, a garland and several smaller sprays of artificial poinsettias, sprigs of holly and a bouquet of artificial marigolds (Fig. 5). Potted poinsettias, sprigs of holly and marigolds were also among the remembrances at Vela’s grave site in one of Austin’s largest Catholic cemeteries, as well as several sea shells, two angel figurines, an unopened can of beer, a large plastic candy cane accompanied by two giant, cellophane-wrapped lollipops, a small, hand-painted ceramic cross, and greeting cards (Fig. 6).

[Figures 5-6 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Of course, cemetery regulations must be taken into account when comparing memorialisation activity. Generally speaking, Austin’s older cemeteries, such as that in which Vela is buried, do not enforce the strict decoration policies in place at newer memorial parks. Evidence of greater activity at a roadside cross may be a result of restrictive cemetery policy. Vicki Biggs concentrates a large portion of memorial activity for her daughter, Tara, at the cross erected at the accident site by classmates and friends. She said:

We really do more at the cross than we do at the cemetery. Yes, we put

flowers and everything, but at the cemetery you’re not allowed–now, at

special occasions, like Christmas or whatever, for a couple of days they’ll

let you. But it’s a flat headstone. And then they’ve got the built-in

flower things. So, you’re not supposed to, if it doesn’t go into the flower

thing, you’re not really supposed to put anything down. And, in fact, I

didn’t know that at first, and I had, she [Tara] collected snow domes. And

so I put one of her favourite snow domes out there and some Lion King

figurines. And about a week later I went back out there and they were gone,

somebody had taken them. But up at the cross I’ve got a snow dome up there,

there’s like three, one big, ceramic angel, two smaller ones, and there’s

Lion King figurines, and there’s, you know, and no one’s ever touched them.

Although Vicki regularly visits Tara’s grave, she has a much freer hand to decorate the cross as she wishes, as do Tara’s friends.

The cross was constructed by a family friend and painted at the accident site, the morning after Tara’s death, by several of Tara’s classmates and teachers, each one taking a turn with brush and paint. Vicki had happened to drive by just as they were painting, and told me:

When I saw them doing that, I just started crying, going, “Gosh,” you know?

I mean, at that time, of course we weren’t in the frame of mind–I wouldn’t

even have thought about it at that moment. So, they did and it made me real

happy. I was real happy that they had done that.

Although the appearance of the cross was a surprise, it was a felicitous one.

The roadside cross and Tara’s grave site are only two of the sites involved in Tara’s memorial complex, which has included an impromptu memorial of notes, letters, poems and photographs left at Tara’s locker at Lake Travis High School; a memorial bench, erected on school grounds, to which a remembrance of some kind–a plaque, an angel figurine–is added each year on the anniversary of the accident; numerous scrapbooks; and a web site created by a family friend. Thus, Tara’s family and friends have numerous outlets for expressions of grief and affection.

In addition, such memorials provide a place of mourning and contemplation for those who may have witnessed a fatal accident, but did not know the deceased (see also Monger 1997, 114) and are therefore unlikely to attend the funeral or visit the victim’s grave site. A large number of Crockett High School students witnessed a fatal accident on 16 October 1996 when eight year-old Jacorey Williams was struck and killed by a car when crossing a nearby street. When I administered a questionnaire to several English literature classes at the school in the spring of 1997, many ,of the students wrote about the accident, and the small white cross that commemorates it (Fig. 7).

[Figure 7 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Erected in the median near the accident scene, the cross is often attended by toys, fresh flowers and plants. When I photographed the memorial in 1997, a small picture of Jacorey was taped to the cross’s east face, above football cards and handwritten notes covered with plastic wrap, and a rosary, also affixed with tape. Students who witnessed the accident wrote about leaving flowers and toys at the cross, or simply thinking of him each time they passed the memorial.

Whether as a primary or secondary site of commemoration, it is important to recognise roadside memorials as integral to memorial complexes which serve grieving individuals’ needs in a variety of ways that often change over time (Edgette 1997; Zimmerman 1997). Immediately following a fatal accident, friends and relatives, as well as witnesses, may focus their activities on the accident site. After a few years, when activity at the roadside appears to decrease or stop altogether, the greater part of memorialisation activity may have moved to the cemetery or the home. Thus, while documenting and analysing roadside memorialisation practices affords valuable insight into the intersection of belief and custom, it is vital that the researcher consider such memorials as part of a dynamic memory network influenced by such diverse factors as participants’ relationship to the deceased, religious affiliation, city ordinances and cultural influences.

Notes

[1] The full title of the thesis is “Crossroads: Roadside Accident Memorials In and Around Austin, Texas.”

[2] The cross to which I refer here, next to a busy, four-lane road, bears a plaque which reads:

IN MEMORY OF DAVID M. CROWLEY JANUARY 16, 1965–OCTOBER 16, 1995

“You always have been, and forever will be, my friend.”

The quotation is from the 1982 motion picture Star-Trek II–The Wrath of Khan. They are Spock’s dying words to Kirk.

[3] The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which regulates highway construction and maintenance, including the maintenance of all rights-of-way, divides the state into fifteen administrative districts. Austin is in the “Austin district.” The administration of each district decides it own policy regarding roadside memorials such as those discussed here. Thus, while the Austin district allows individuals to erect memorials through MADD, any type of roadside memorial is prohibited in the Dallas district (Hurt 1997). Moreover, even MADD memorials in the Austin district (which are not limited to crosses, but may also take the form of a Star of David, for example) are subject to size, construction and placement restrictions. However, like the Roads and Traffic Authority in Australia, as previously reported by Robert James Smith (1999, 105), officials in the Austin district avoid dismantling or moving any memorials, MADD or otherwise, unless they are in the path of road work, or deemed to be dangerous obstructions and/or distractions.

[4] Tammy and Nathan are buried near each other in a large, non-denominational cemetery.

[5] Both Margie and Susan state, however, that Jeffrey Suggs’s family has never been involved in maintenance or decoration of the memorial.

References Cited

Barrera, Alberto. “Mexican-American Roadside Crosses in Starr County.” In Hecho en Tejas: Texas-Mexican Folk Arts and Crafts, ed. Joe S. Graham. 278-92. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1991.

Berlandier, Jean Louis. Journey to Mexico during the Years 1826-1834. Translated by Sheila M. Ohlendorf, et al. 2 vols. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1980.

Biggs, Vicki. Interview by author. Tape recording. Austin, TX, 15 January 1998.

Crane, Susan. Interview by author. Tape recording. Austin, TX, 20 January 1998.

De Leon, Alonso. “Itinerary of the De Leon Expedition of 1689.” In Spanish Exploration in the Southwest 1542-1706. [1908] Edited by H. E. Bolton. Translated by Elizabeth Howard West. 388-404. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.

Drury, Susan. “Funeral Plants and Flowers in England: Some Examples.” Folklore 105 (1994):101-3.

Edgette, J. Joseph. “Death Site and Grave Sites: Bridging the Memory.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, Austin, TX, 1997.

Grider, Sylvia. “The Poisoning of Treaty Oak: The Exploitation and Transformation of Tradition.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, St John’s, NF, May 1999.

Griffith, James S. Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Primeria Alta. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1992.

Hurt, John. Interview by author. Austin, TX, 2 May 1997.

Kozak, David and Camillus Lopez. “The Tohono O’odham Shrine Complex: Memorializing the Location of Violent Death.” New York Folklore 17 (1991):1-20.

Lamay, Shilah. Interview by author. Tape recording. Austin, TX, 21 May 1997.

Monger, George. “Modern Wayside Shrines.” Folklore 108 (1997):113-14.

Ohlendorf, Tom. Interview by author. Austin, TX, 2 May 1997.

Owen, Maida. E-mail to author, 4 August 1997.

Ramos, Mary G., ed. 1998-1999 Texas Almanac. Dallas, TX: Dallas Morning News, 1997.

Reed, Raymond. Interview by author. Tape recording. Austin, TX, 18 June 1997.

Smith, Robert James. “Roadside Memorials–Some Australian Examples.” Folklore 110 (1999): 103-5.

Solter, Jennifer. Interview by author. Tape recording. Austin, TX, 2 June 1997.

Walter, Tony. “Funeral Flowers: A Response to Drury.” Folklore 107 (1996):106-7.

Werchan, James. Interview by author. Tape recording. Austin, TX, 4 March 1998.

Zimmerman, Thomas. “Sites of Public Death: Roadside Memorials in South Central Kentucky.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, Austin, TX, 1997.

Biographical Note

Holly Everett is a doctoral student in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. Her current research interests include music, belief, material culture and the history of folklore.

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