Roadside requiems

Russell Wangersky
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In her memoir "Bird Cloud," Annie Proulx remembers the way the state of Maine used to put up official state crosses at the scene of highway deaths, "a safety warning policy the state ... dropped when the proliferation of crosses along the highway gave it a ghoulish appearance."

Not just Maine, either: among other police forces, the Arizona State Highway Patrol erected white crosses in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Arizona police don't put crosses up anymore, but the Arizona public still does, just the way roadside memorials are more and more common in this province. (Some states have banned the practice, and at least one, California, seeing a revenue opportunity, now charges families a $1,000 fee to put up a blue memorial sign, a policy that applies only if a family member was the victim of a drunk driver.)

Start looking in this province, and you'll realize (especially after the recent brush-clearing efforts by the provincial government) that there are many more signs - and correspondingly, many more deaths - than you might have realized.

Out on the road to Point Lance, there's a single-word memorial that says "Careen." If I remember right, it's white and it stands alone in the barrenlands, surround by low tuckamore and boulders left scattered by ancient glaciers. At the apex of a shallow curve, it's hard to imagine what caused an accident right there. But something did.

Others are more recent: there's the angel near the Avondale access - tufts of bright artificial flowers on both sides and on the guardrail nearby - to mark the spot where a young woman, still in high school, died as a result of a moose/vehicle accident last year.

There's the clifftop before Bay Roberts, out on the Veterans' Memorial Highway, where two identical wreaths catch your eye with their twins stain of bright red high up on the grey rock, reminders overlooking the highway where an elderly father and his son died in a head-on crash that's still hard to fathom, long enough ago that the long streaks of skidding rubber on the highway have faded.

That's just a handful - there are scores, some regularly tended, others less so (standing alone in the rough scrub in a way that seems to be daring you to try and ignore them).

There's nothing standard about these memorials, and few that are really formal - official stone markers tend to be newer, though there is a large metal memorial, well back from the side of the road and just as you climb into the Doe Hills heading for the isthmus, that is sobering in both its size and the understatedness of its rust-red and simple design.

It's easy to understand why the memorials exist. Any time you talk to family members who have lost someone in a highway accident, they seem to have an almost urgent need to know where it happened.

You want to know where, and you want to be able to stand there, look at the circumstances and ask why. The place might not provide any answers, but it doesn't stop you from searching the surroundings anyway.

But back, for a moment, to the states that have banned such memorials.

There is a suggestion that the crosses, flowers and even stuffed animals might be a distraction to other drivers.

They may well be, because more and more often, you see larger and larger memorials, many of them well-kept and sprawling over more and more of the shoulder.

There are certainly more and more of them.

But as roadway distractions go, these are probably good ones.

The distractions they provide are primarily the questions of who, how and when.

Who died?

What happened?

And maybe somewhere in there, should I pull my own foot back off the gas a little?

You can be distracted by the lid on your coffee cup, by the CD player in your dashboard, by the trill of your cellphone or the bleat of the latest text message lighting up the glass face of your phone. Distractions and their dangers abound.

But roadside memorials?

They are distractions that point out there are consequences to the decisions we and others make - and sometimes, that point out the unreasonable hand of Fate.

And if there should ever be so many that our highways, like Maine's, should appear ghoulish, well, that should be the start of a completely different kind of discussion - and it isn't one about whether the memorials should stay or go.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at


Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: California, Maine, Arizona Point Lance Bay Roberts

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Recent comments

  • Donny Dooley Dildo NL
    January 08, 2012 - 14:49

    To me those roadside memorials say "some really, really bad driving happened right here"! I'm looking forward to seeing the first one on the new Torbay Bypass Road. It won't be long now!

  • Lane
    January 07, 2012 - 21:57

    Whoever wrote this headline obviously has no idea what a 'requiem' is. It is not a synonym for a monument. It is a Catholic service commemorating the dead or a musical piece written for such a service. The headline makes no sense at all.

  • David
    January 07, 2012 - 13:26

    It's easier to find a roadside grave in rural Newfoundland than most businesses. Some of these "memorials" are dangerous, tasteless, offensive, and disrespectful to the dead. It has become a sort of public compettion to show motorists how utterly mindless Newfoundland mourners can be, and winning seems to be extremely important. As far as whether they provide some sort of inadvertent, beneficial reminder of the consequences of inattentive driving, that's pure bunk. People can 'see' anything, but they only process and act on information they like or agree with..and not even all of that. But hey, if you think that all the expensive, useless public service messages currently funded by living taxpayers can be ended and replaced by these tacky, morbid (but free!) ones of the dead, I'm all for it...bring on the bunting and whirlygigs !