Roadside Memorials—Some Australian Examples

Roadside Memorials—Some Australian Examples

Robert James Smith

On Sunday 6 October 1998, during a holiday long weekend in New South Wales (N.S.W.), Australia, at around 2 p.m., beside the busy Pacific Highway south of Kempsey, without a building in sight in any direction, a family group was to be seen approaching a small white cross. The adults seemed to be late thirties to early forties, with the three children, aged from around five to twelve years. Flowers were already on the memorial and, after the group had paused, the youngest child was coaxed forward to place there the small wreath she was carrying.

As with examples of commemoration detailed in recent issues of Folklore, (Walter 1996, 106; Monger 1997), here is evidence of a place that was rich with significance and worthy of reverential behaviour for this group. Memorial crosses are often seen along Australian roadsides, thus following the practice previously described for other countries. Yet it is rare to know of the actual details prompting the commemoration, and rarer still to see any people actually at the sites. The common characteristics of this private and increasingly important folk custom are difficult to determine. The available evidence provides only the barest outlines of the practice; and when such mourners are encountered, the passer-by must avoid intruding upon their grief. A useful method of investigation in this subject is the comparative approach, drawing upon examples from many situations, and to this end I offer the following observations from northern New South Wales.

The largely European experiences detailed by George Monger reflect a land with many cultural echoes already inherent in specific sites. Australia’s more mobile population and a lower density of occupation have led to only slight practice of such site commemoration. Even with the large-scale European migration into Australia of the last fifty years, elaborate wayside memorials–as in the Greek practice, for example–is rare on this side of the world (none in northern N.S.W.).

An Australian study recently undertaken in Newcastle N.S.W. provides much useful data and pause for thought. K.V. Hartig and K.M. Dunn (1998) compared official records of all motor fatalities over a five-year period with remaining memorialisation sites, then undertook interviews with drivers, the bereaved and local residents. Their major finding was a strong gender link:

[Roadside memorials] function as conservative memorials of youth machismo;

of heroic aggression, disregard for safety and egocentrism (Hartig and Dunn

1998, 5).

Their interviews reported that most drivers–with the particular exception of older males–slowed down as they passed these sites. While much of the descriptive material in Hartvig and Dunn’s report accorded with my own northern N.S.W. experience (sizes of crosses 30cms–1m, always white with black lettering), some of their observations did not. For example, I found no evidence of the use of photographs and long messages. Furthermore, their analysis did not ring true for my region. The study seemed to be relevant mainly to a closely settled urban area–where the sites were not only readily identifiable but perhaps an unavoidable sight in daily travel to work or shopping. Such is not the case in rural Australia. Their study therefore prompted me to a renewed local observation and analysis.

The north of the state is dominated by two highways. The Pacific Highway and the New England Highway link Sydney to Brisbane, with the New England taking a longer, inland route. Though the traffic volume, particularly on the Pacific Highway, is similar to that on British motorways, it still seems essentially a country road, mostly of only two lanes. The sides of the roads are readily accessible to motorists who need to stop, but this is rarely done. Housing is sparse, and there is a large amount of through-traffic. For over ten years there has been a concerted public campaign to get the Pacific Highway upgraded. Though I have observed no example of a memorial directly accusing the authorities of poor road quality, the roadside memorials should be still read as a silent criticism of local road conditions.

Local people remember such a memorialisation in the early 19608 near Maitland (New England Highway). It consisted of three crosses, about twenty metres from the road, erected and maintained by “a man who had lost his wife and two daughters in a motor accident.” The markers were regularly renewed into the 1970s, though the practice was, and still is, illegal. Though it was generally considered an excessive expression of grief (being so public and continuing), yet it was condoned as being at the margins of acceptability given the unexpectedness and severity of the family loss. The site was also read by travellers as a sign of a then-dangerous corner and uneven road surface, which reinforces Monger’s point about memorials serving as a warning to other road users (Monger 1997, 14).

There are many simple examples of crosses, wreaths or bunches of flowers–as many without names as with. Those commemorated by names are generally male and usually of British origin. Only one has the nickname prominent–“Cockroach,” which suggests perhaps some male group. Dates are rare and those given are predominantly for victiros in their early twenties–generally reflecting the gender and age distribution of road deaths. Double names are more often male and female–for example–Eugene and Jodie, Mark and Christine. The latter memorial is distinctive, in that the two names are positioned:










As a warning against reading too much into names or layout, one must add that these two victims belonged to Roman Catholic religious orders. They had just led a workshop at a local school, and were travelling together to the next engagement. The man who erected and maintains this memorial is himself a Brother in the same order. He cited the long distances from the homes of the deceased and was concerned that the site of their deaths, and the great loss sustained there, might otherwise be forgotten. In essence, this is an attempt to declare and maintain a public grief against the seeming anonymity and erasure of most highway deaths.

Only one example of memorialisation evidenced the inclusion of some part of the vehicle (Figure 1) (cf. Hartvig and Dunn 1998, 9-10). In this local case it was a speedometer/tachometer surmounting a cross, with a tyre surround. There is no indication that this memorial is a celebration of speed, though the Newcastle study had several examples of this practice (even the tachometer is resting at a relaxed 4,000 r.p.m.). Rather than celebrating the foolhardy speed of youth (the simple plaque indicates age as 38), it is possible to read this memorial as a modest reminder of the dangers inherent in everyone’s day-to-day life. This example is from the quieter Bruxner Highway (linking the Pacific and New England Highways), an area where vehicle ownership is necessary for transport to services (banking, medical, education, shopping) and car ownership and maintenance is an important marker of independence, and for the young a mark of coming-of-age.


The most detailed wording is on the “Raj Jansson” memorial (Figure 2), where the practice has been appropriated for memorialising a pet dog. An interview with the owner revealed the anger inherent in some memorialisation; this cross was erected as an expression of rage and an accusation against the “red car which killed [the] dog on purpose.” This memorial is intended to confront the otherwise unknown perpetrator–and gives fuller expression to feeling than usual. Though rage and grief are just as likely to prompt other memorials to innocent victims, the code of keeping grief “seemly” or “normalised” means that they are usually unexpressed (Fraser 1997, 61-2).


Two large-scale bus crashes on the Pacific Highway in 1989 provided a fillip to the practice of memorialisation in the region. At Cowper (near Grafton) twenty people died, while at Clybucca (sometimes called “Kempsey”) two buses

collided head-on and thirty-five people were killed. As all three were inter-city buses, the fatalities were not from the region–yet all were memorialised locally. The Cowper accident is remembered by a services club gazebo-style memorial in See Park, 25 kilometres away in Grafton. On long weekends, the bereaved gather for a short service, presumably coming from great distances. Participants are a cross-section of the Australian community and the occasion is very dignified.

At Clybucca a Memorial Gardens has been erected within a kilometre of the accident site, perhaps because it was feared there might be an uncontrolled proliferation of individual memorials cluttering the roadside. What was produced was a formal shrine of the kind more often associated with war memorials, even to the provision of two flagpoles. The lists of names fall under the headings of the two bus companies involved–a rare identification of commercially sensitive names (and not given in the memorial for the Cowper accident). A most touching hand-written card was placed behind the flowers shown in the photograph: “Dear–, Even after nine years I still miss you terribly …” There is a garden border around the perimeter for the installation of individual memorials–an opportunity taken up by only seven (two for the same victim). Space has been provided for memorials for each of the thirty-five deceased. Young male culture, which Hartig and Dunn suggested was part of the memorialisation tradition in the Newcastle study, would seem to have no role to play here. It seems rather to reflect a deeper unease about modern mobility, transience, the fragility of life, even the difficulty in identifying those responsible for the tragedies.

The media report constant demands for the Pacific Highway to be upgraded. These occasionally reach fever pitch over the perceived dangers of accident black-spots. One such black-spot is the “Burringbar Range” which has had twenty-five deaths in five years. Recently an accident occurred which led to three fatalities. At present (February 1999), there are only two memorials on this section of road. One is a flowers-only indicator of the recent fatalities; large and prominent, the flowers play a quiet and dignified role in the debate. The fact that there are so few memorials on such a dangerous piece of road suggests that only a small percentage of bereaved people choose to, or have the opportunity to, memorialise their loss in this way, or perhaps that the practice is dying out. In this region the appearance of bunches of flowers at sites is almost universal, but few are maintained long-term to become more or less permanent markers. Those which do continue persist for a remarkably long time. Of the sites I first noted in 1995, only one has lapsed into disrepair.

An interview with a long-serving Roads and Traffic Authority (R.T.A.) official in the region confirmed that memorials were originally discouraged, but the official attitude changed to tolerance when they began to be seen as possible curbs on speed. Current R.T.A. policy is to show respect for the bereaved, but if the memorial is dangerous or an obstruction, then it will be removed. In practice memorials are only removed when they have fallen into neglect-in all, a very sympathetic response to grieving people who are never seen. Drivers interviewed for Hartig and Dunn’s Newcastle study reported that they slowed down at memorial sites. However, the R.T.A. officer detailed recent radar speed tests which showed that speed has actually increased at some new sites. Perhaps one explanation for this discrepancy is that drivers wish to respect grief (or to protect the illegal memorial practice) and so exaggerate the immediate impact on their speed when they report their reactions–a remarkable example of solidarity in folk-feeling. Nevertheless, the longer-term impact may well be a calmer more thoughtful approach to driving.

There has been no evidence of vandalism of memorials in this region, where the lower population density means less intrusion of another’s “sacred space” into one’s own “domestic space,” as is seen in urban contexts. It is interesting to note the family nature of the memorialisation practice: the sites are special to a missed person, a place to go to, and a place to show children. They are reminders that danger and death are lurking in seemingly ordinary places, and indirectly reinforce the whole family’s caring. When the deceased and bereaved are holiday-makers there is an element of pilgrimage in the visits and they may continue for many years. Still, one wonders if there will be a gradual decline of the practice at individual sites after several years, once the memorialisation has served its purpose–in the same way that the number of flowers on a grave decreases over the years.

A larger question, however, is why the roadside is chosen to create a sacred space? The answer most commonly given is that it is the place at which death or loss of consciousness occurred, but this ignores that fact that the death usually occurs in the ambulance or hospital. It is more likely that the place is rich with significance in some way. Perhaps it may signify the last (fatal) choice the driver made–his or her speed on the comer, over-correction of a skid, lack of concentration, or lapse into drowsiness. It may mark a climax to the longterm choices or patterns of behaviour–for example, drink-driving, or passenger complicity in travelling with such a driver). Finally, it may mark human vulnerability to external factors beyond one’s control–a patch of oil on the road, an animal suddenly appearing on road, an on-coming vehicle on wrong side of road. Here also is where there emerges the tension with road administrators and politicians over their responsibility for providing an adequate facility, in some cases even their liability.

A consideration of roadside shrines can draw much clarity from quantitative analyses such as the Newcastle study. But folklore studies can reveal their limitations and also have a role to play in opening the practice to community understanding. This is particularly important when some public policy makers are looking closely at limiting a powerful yet essentially private practice.

Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia

References Cited

Fraser, Mary. “The Legacy of Suicide: the Impact of Suicide on Families.” In The Unknown Country: Death in Australia, Britain and the USA. ed. Kathy Charmaz, Glennys Howarth and Allan Kellehear. 58-71 and 61-62. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1997.

Hartig, K.V., K.M. Dunn. “Roadside Memorials: Interpreting New Deathscapes in Newcastle, New South Wales.” Australian Geographical Studies 36.1 (1998):5-20.

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

Walter, Tony. “Funeral Flowers: A Response to Drury.” Folklore 107 (1996):106-7.3

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