Roadside Memorials


Photo: Chenin Gilles

Today I’m in Paris—Paris, Texas. It’s a sweet little town heading toward the Arkansas border. Some people would say it’s in the middle of nowhere, but Parisians regard it as very cosmopolitan. To prove their kinship to Paris, France, the Texas Parisians have erected a sixty-five-foot Eiffel Tower replica, but this one is crowned with a giant red metal cowboy hat.

Other than the Eiffel Tower, there’s not much sightseeing to be done in Paris. I know because I drove around the town, which took ten minutes, and nothing caught my eye. That is, except the graves. Not cemetery graves, but roadside grave markers. No bodies are buried here, but homemade wooden crosses and bouquets of faded plastic flowers mark the places where a loved one died along the lonesome highway. 

The stretch of road from Sulphur Springs, Texas to Paris is where the landscape loses the last flourishes of Dallas and opens up to flat, wide, empty country. There seem to be roadside grave markers every mile. They command the eye, perhaps because there’s not much else to look at besides cows and fields of cotton.

I can’t ignore their presence, so I pull over. The most touching ones are also the most simple. I find a grave marker for Bobby—I think it’s Bobby, I mean, but the rain and sun have faded it badly. It may be Robby; I hope it doesn’t say Baby.

This grave marker is made from the two wooden stirrers you get when you buy a quart of paint. They’ve been stapled together to make a cross and painted white. Someone dug a small hole by the side of the road and filled it with cement before the cross was installed. This is not a temporary memorial. The base of the cross is tied with a brown bandana. It flutters in the dry wind. R.I.P. Bobby.

A mile later, I see another roadside grave. This one looks like a bower bird built it: it’s is a freeform mound of objects, shards of blue and green glass, a yard of yellow ribbon, a bar towel, and one of those plastic key chains sold at 7-11 with the person’s name on it. This one says Susan. I try to interpret the grave as an anthropologist might. Why a bar towel? Are the shards of glass from beer bottles? Maybe Susan was driving drunk when she died here. Is this a tribute or a warning?

Some scholars believe the first roadside graves date to centuries ago, when they were erected in heavily Hispanic states like New Mexico and Texas. In Spanish, they’re called “descanos,” or resting places. But they’re not just in the American Southwest, of course; you see them everywhere you travel. In Connecticut, my home state, they tend to be more formal, sometimes including large color photographs of the deceased along with flower arrangements, some fake some real. Someone is curating these graves, because the flowers change with the season. In the autumn there are pumpkins, on birthdays there are stuffed toys or bottles of wine.

Not everyone finds these grave markers as touching as I do. States have passed various efforts at prohibiting them, only to have those rules ignored or overturned. To make a memorial on a public highway bothers lawyers and government bureaucrats. They see the roadside memorials as eyesores, something on the level of graffiti—a usurping of public land for private use. They see them as a danger to the flow of traffic, and as visual clutter. One anti-grave advocate said that because they often feature crosses they’re offensive to people of other faiths. A pro-grave lawyer went to court representing a grieving family horrified that the roadside grave they made had been removed.

Colorado and Wyoming have tried to standardize roadside graves by producing uniform wooden posts with a symbol of a dove—these and these alone are legal to place next to a road. They bear no names or tender words. Driving by them in a car you might not even know what they are. They look like mile markers or rest-stop signage.

I see roadside graves as pure, heartfelt folk art, a collision of grief and found materials. A way to remember what happened to someone beloved. I can’t remember the last time I went to a cemetery to visit the grave of someone dear to me—they’re in a kind of isolation there—but if they had a little tribute by the side of the road I would think of them every time I drove by to get gas or go to the grocery store. After a few days on the road in Paris, Texas, Bobby-Robby-Baby and Susan had been on my mind so much they felt like old friends. They’ll come back to me whenever I think of the Eiffel Tower with the jaunty Stetson.

Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures and one of the Daily’s correspondents. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Jane and Michael Stern Collection, comprising forty years of their research materials, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

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