There are places you remember all your life. They are symbols of moments or stages in your life, times when something changed you. Some of them you just can’t forget, no matter how much you wish you could. When a loved one dies in a wreck on one of our highways, you are condemned to remember that place for the rest of your life.
Such a death is sudden and brutal. There are none of the consolations we have learned to expect when there is forewarning of such a loss: people near who know you and care for you and an extended support system from hospitals, workplaces or places of worship. There is usually nothing more than a terrifying message and your own imagination of the horror at the end of a life. There is a numbness that alternately protects you from your feelings, then upsets you when you want to let those raw emotions come flooding back because they are better than helplessness. They hurt, but they make you feel closer. Then time begins its slow work.
But that place on the side of the road can still reach into your insides, and sometimes you want it to.
It’s an increasingly common practice for grieving loved ones to erect little memorial shrines. It is an active thing to do, a personal remembrance usually couched in religious terms. Think of the relatives in Randy Travis’ song “Three Wooden Crosses.” Perhaps some people wonder if maybe it’s a place where a departing spirit reached back to look for them or to touch them. For others it’s a place that brings back feelings sweet and searingly painful, a sort of ethereal photo album of memories seen more clearly at this place than anywhere else.
But there are those who fear stretches of highways will become littered with memorials like some Third-World country where trash blows off trucks and buses and is never picked up. There are those who claim religion must be kept off government property. Some say the shrines are eyesores; some say they distract drivers and could lead to accidents. Others say they keep drivers more alert and aware of the dangers of the open road. I read about one driver who said he’d had enough tragedy in his own life that he didn’t need to keep running upon other people’s tragedies.
There is no federal law that covers roadside memorials. Some states regulate the practice – some say yes, some say no, some say it’s OK if you buy a bland state-made sign to use for your shrine or pay a fee to erect it. If the state doesn’t have a law, local authorities often draw one up. So there’s a mishmash of regulations when it comes to these shrines.
And maybe that’s a good thing. Debate and disagreement should sometimes be ongoing, an indicator of our democracy at work. Not every issue can neatly be resolved into a single official position.
It may seem like a little issue, not one of those that splits America down the center or forces people to line up with one political party or the other. It’s not one that leads to bar fights. But little issues are central to the way America lives. Don’t ignore them or think them of too little consequence to take your time. America is still one of the few places, if not the only place, where government authority is accepted but treated with some disdain and suspicion. The average American obeys most laws because it’s the right thing to do rather than through any fearful reaction that says you must do what the government tells you to do.
My main concern is the “if it ain’t regulated, regulate it” crowd of bureaucrats and lesser politicians. We don’t ever consider giving up our big freedoms, the ones listed in the Bill of Rights. But we need to be on guard against giving up our little freedoms, because sometimes they drift away from us like taillights in the fog when the paper pushers in government offices pass a little regulation here and a little regulation there. Next thing you know, someone is telling you that you can’t do something else.
So I’d like to hear the debate on roadside memorials keep running hot, to hear people on every side of the issue standing up and saying what they think. You decide. Don’t let them decide for you.