Descansos: Religion and Roadside Memorials

Benjamin Radford

In my home state of New Mexico, most people are familiar with descansos, roadside memorials that dot the roads and highways. The word descanso comes from the Spanish word meaning “to rest” (as in a resting place, either a final one for a deceased person or a temporary one for pallbearers making their way to a grave). Roadside memorials can be found around the world, but in the Southwest they are both traditional and popular. Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum noted that “the decorated crosses that dot our highways, marking the place where a soul left this earth in a car crash, are high on my list of what makes New Mexico the best place to live.”

Recently, however, a controversy has erupted over the memorials. In Utah, American Atheists sued to have Christian roadside memorials removed from that state’s highways. They claim that thirteen twelve-foot-tall white steel crosses erected in memory of fallen state troopers represent the death of Jesus Christ and therefore violate the First Amendment. The Utah Highway Patrol Association defends the crosses as secular symbols that honor the troopers and deter speeders. While the lawsuit is being decided by a federal appellate court, it is interesting to examine the misconceptions about descansos that the case revealed.

Religious Red Herring

One common misunderstanding about descansos is that objections to them are based mainly on their religious nature. This angle was emphasized in a Journal article (November 2, 2008) by Kiera Hay and Mark Oswald (subtitled “Atheists in Utah Seek to Ban Roadside Memorials”) that cast the controversy as one between Christians and atheists. That article spawned a letter to the editor by Tiffany Nicol, in which an obviously exercised Nicol wrote: “These atheists in Utah seeking to ban roadside memorials should find something else to do! If they don’t like seeing the crosses, then don’t look! Just because they do not believe in God, they have no right to deny those of us who do. . . . It is time to stop their ridiculous and malicious actions!”

While the religious controversy angle makes for sensational headlines, the real issue is not about religious symbols, Christian or otherwise, but instead about the private use of public property. Anyone who wishes to erect a cross, obelisk, flower wreath, teddy-bear collection, or any other marker or memorial on his or her own property has every right to do so. Putting up a memorial to one person along public highways owned by everyone is a very different matter. No one person or family has the right to use public land for personal purposes; it is not theirs. It doesn’t matter if the memorial is religious in nature or not; a plaque or cement bust of the dead person is just as illegal as a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David. I can’t go onto public land and decide on my own to erect whatever memorial I want, whether it is a cross or a stone pillar or a shrine for Robert Green Ingersoll. It is not my property.

The underyling problem is the location of the memorial, not its content. An atheist organization brought the Utah lawsuit, but religion is only part of the issue. The “persecuted Christian” angle is a convenient red herring; thus Journal readers mistakenly think that the debate is about atheists who “don’t like seeing crosses.” Non-Christians don’t mind seeing crosses all the time—as long as they are not on public property.

Interrupted Journey

Another myth about descansos concerns what they represent. From a cultural and folkloric perspective, descansos mark an “interrupted journey,” a path (physical, spiritual, or metaphorical) whose course has been altered, often by tragedy. Descansos do not necessarily “mark the place where a soul left this earth in a car crash”; very few mark where an accident victim actually died, unless he or she was killed instantly at the site. Far more often, victims die hours or days later in a hospital. Sometimes they die in the ambulance en route to a hospital. If descansos marked the spot where a soul left the earth, hospital hallways would be littered with them. (Nor, for that matter, do descansos necessarily indicate a car crash or vehicle death; in the Utah case, for example, the roadside memorials were erected for state troopers shot or killed in the line of duty.)

Even in accident-related descansos, there is controversy about who merits a memorial. Should it include a drunk driver who caused the accident or only his or her victims? Should a criminal or killer be memorialized?

Road Hazards

Descansos can become road hazards. Often those who erect descansos go beyond erecting a simple cross and add other things: photographs, notes, papers, books, teddy bears, votive candles, flowers both live and plastic, T-shirts, beer bottles, candies, toys, artwork, wreaths, plaques, CDs, and so on. Regardless of how noble their origins, at some point these items become litter. Papers blow away, weathered teddy bears sprout stuffing, the deceased person’s favorite CDs become cracked silver plastic trash. Most New Mexico Department of Transportation road crews are careful to respect descansos, though they often must remove them (at least temporarily) to do road work and maintenance.

The person memorialized by a highway descanso is typically anonymous to virtually everyone who sees it. While some descansos have names written on them, many don’t, and those that do have lettering too small to read from a passing vehicle operating at a safe speed. For example, instead of people seeing a memorial and thinking good thoughts or saying a small prayer for a twenty-two-year-old named Roberto who wanted to be a musician before he was killed by a drunk, almost no one knows what it signifies. All they know is that something happened to someone somewhere nearby at some point in time. Who was it? When did death occur? Was it a car crash, a shooting, a heart attack, or something else? Who knows? The victim likely already has a gravestone or marker somewhere else that more fully tells his or her story. Whether it’s comprised of a cement cross, a painted stake in the ground, or just a collection of notes and teddy bears, the descanso’s anonymity largely robs it of significance.

While the legality and appropriateness of descansos are debated, there are other ways in which a loved one can be memorialized on New Mexico’s roads. For example, the DOT has a program called “Memorial Sign Program for Victims of Alcohol-Related Crashes” intended “as a means of lending emotional support to a victim’s family and furthering efforts to combat drinking and driving.” Recognizing that roadside memorials can create hazards, the rules state that the signs may only be placed in predetermined areas, taking into account visibility, road geometry, and federal and state regulations—again, not necessarily at the site of a crash. There are many such signs throughout Albuquerque; a typical one reads, “Please don’t drink and drive. In memory of Arlene Baca.” Unlike descansos, the sign actually tells the viewer who the person was and what happened to him or her, providing a reminder that drunk driving can end innocent lives. The aluminum signs cost $90 to $120.

Whether you agree or disagree with descansos, the issue merits a real discussion free of myths and misunderstandings. The urge to memorialize a dead loved one is understandable and honorable. But one person’s (or even one family’s) grief does not give legal or moral license to erect descansos wherever anyone likes. Descansos have thrived in a gray area of the law, but once we allow private citizens to use public land as if it were their personal property, a dangerous precedent is set.

Readers interested in learning more about this topic should see a documentary called Resting Places (which was partly filmed in Santa Fe).

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford is an investigator and research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and creator of Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination.

In my home state of New Mexico, most people are familiar with descansos, roadside memorials that dot the roads and highways. The word descanso comes from the Spanish word meaning “to rest” (as in a resting place, either a final one for a deceased person or a temporary one for pallbearers making their way to …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.