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Commentary Detail

Roadside Memorials
Commentary by: Wm. Stage
Aired November 21, 2011

True story: Driving along Route 30 one afternoon I happened to glimpse one of those roadside markers poking out of the brush. It caught my attention and, trying to make out the letters, I distinctly remember thinking: Those things are going to cause an accident. And I gazed upon that marker a second too long because when I turned back to my driving, traffic had stopped and I couldn't brake in time to avoid hitting the truck ahead of me.

That makeshift marker represents a growing trend to commemorate traffic fatalities at the spot where they occurred. You’ve seen them — roadside displays, often crosses, festooned with flowers, balloons, streamers, and other details you can’t quite make out flying past. Some are slapped together and won’t last long, while others look as though they were done professionally. No authority sanctions them, they simply show up one day. And whether you find them touching or distracting or downright disturbing, get used to it — just as we have gotten used to 41,000-plus annual traffic deaths nationwide — because they will continue to be in our faces, a poignant reminder of life's fragility.

What causes people to place these things on streets and highways? Aren’t laudatory funeral services and graveside visits enough? Apparently not.

Theories: First, cremations are on the rise. Lisa Baue, a funeral home owner here, says that today about one-third of all human remains are cremated. With no cemetery plot to visit, the family seeks an alternative venue and it's usually on public property. One conspicuous hodgepodge stood at a busy South City intersection for a long time. Directly across the way is the New St. Marcus Cemetery. Every time I saw that exhibit I thought, Why isn't this over there with all the others? But of course it couldn't be — too ostentatious.

Second, our society is immersed in social media. Facebook, Twitter and the like all provide a pipeline for our likes and dislikes, our witticisms, our opinions on everything. Through the bullhorn of this new media, we are, in essence, proclaiming, Look at me. I'm unique. The roadside marker phenomenon is an extension of this urge to broadcast. Think of him, he was a unique person.
Missouri officials acknowledge the markers are proliferating, but that doesn't mean they are endangered. One MODOT spokesperson said the agency doesn't want to appear cold-hearted so the markers are left alone unless they pose a traffic hazard. Some states officially designate fatal crash sites. Montana has its white crosses. South Dakota has its 'Think' signs which read “X Marks The Spot,” and “Think! Drive Safely.” The program started in 1979, so there are a lot of signs.

Look at the large number of traffic deaths in a different way. When 300 people die in an airplane crash that’s sensational, a big story on the news, as well it should be. However, change the mode of transportation from airplane to motor vehicle, take that same death toll and spread it out over several weeks, over many states, and the story loses impact. It becomes easier for people to dismiss the carnage on our roads. Until it happens to someone they know. These public displays force the passing motorist to confront the tragedy of some lost life — a stranger yes, but a fellow human too.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Wm. Stage

Wm. Stage


A journalist and photographer since 1982, Wm. Stage has plumbed the life stories of thousands of people. He has taught photojournalism at Saint Louis University's School for Professional Studies [1990-96] and he is an alumnus of the Photojournalism Workshop, offered by University of Missouri - Columbia's School of Journalism and held in a different Missouri town every year since 1946. He is the author of six non-fiction books including Have A Weird Day: Reflections and Ruminations on the St. Louis Experience. He lives with his dog, Jack, in The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis.

More Wm. Stage Commentaries