Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Roadside Memorial

As I dig through the archives of my new favorite blog, Pruned—if it’s not the best blog about landscape architecture, I defy you to find me a better one—I am consistently wowed by Alexander Trevi’s ability to take the ordinary, look at it from a new angle, and turn it into a new and exciting treasure.

This post about roadside memorials—the offering-accompanied crosses and markers that spring up along rural highways where loved ones have died in car crashes—struck a chord. On one level this is probably because I am from Southern Arizona, roadside-memorial capital of the United States. Ian Urbina’s article in the New York Times, which Pruned cites, explains, “Most researchers believe they descend from a Spanish tradition in which pallbearers left stones or crosses to mark where they rested as they carried a coffin by foot from the church to the cemetery.” The former director of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklore Center, Jim Griffith, discusses theories of the history behind the memorials in a book called Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta:
The custom of erecting a cross to mark the location of a sudden death is an old one in the Hispanic world. The theological purpose for erecting such a cross, as I understand it, is to signal for passersby that at this spot a soul suddenly left its body without the benefit of the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. According to Catholic belief, most souls spend time after death in purgatory, a place of cleansing and purification. There they may be helped by the prayers of the living. The appropriate response to seeing such a cross, therefore, is to pause and say a prayer for the person who died there.
This is why, according to Griffith, many crosses “are decorated with wreaths of artificial flowers”; some with candles, which “are a symbol of prayer and in many communities have become prayers—offerings—in and of themselves”; and still others with “piles of stones, piles that are added to by each traveler who goes by.”

Read on...

To Trevi at Pruned, meanwhile, the memorials and their offerings open up possibilities about the aesthetic in sacred space:
1) it's only a matter of time (if not already) before roadside memorials become as iconic as the Land Survey grid, the gas station, and the clover-leaf highway interchange, a part of the parageographic experience of the American landscape; 2) we should definitely reinstitute the ancient practice of siting cemeteries along traffic arteries, the celebration of death again a part of daily life; 3) besides the occasional shuttered malls, exuberant auto dealerships, and monolithic grain elevators, the ride up to Chicago from points southern is pretty boring, even the political and “Adult” signage have lost their amusement value after several passes, but I-57 looking decidedly Roman and Subcontinental -- or imagine a hysterical mix of a Hindu cremation ritual, a New Orleans jazz funeral march, Jim Crace's quivering, and a High Baroque Requiem mass and the resulting nonstop visual, aromatic and aural assault -- can make for a much livelier drive; 4) why not a pyramid or a baker's tomb or statues in relief and in the round or an Eisenman or the winning entry in the Annual International Roadside Memorial Student Design Competition; so that 5) in a hundred years or in the next decade, pilgrimage routes crisscrossing the country are very much well-established with all the varying roadside caravansaries stitched scenographically together -- a tourist circuit populated by readers of Roadside(memorial)

Pruned's roadside-memorial post caught my eye for another reason. One of my old new favorite blogs, Sarcasmo’s Corner, is no more. This isn’t because, as happens all too often in the blogosphere, its author put up a final “I don’t have time to do this anymore” post, picked up stakes, and left town. And it isn’t because, as happens even more often, posts just dwindled over longer and longer periods until you realize there’s no one at the other end of the line anymore. It’s because she died. Sarcasmo. Or rather, as I found out, Star C. Foster. The death was sudden and unexpected, and I was shocked. To call her a friend would be an affront to people who really were her friends—she had many. To me she was a friend the way Dave Barry or Jack Kerouac or Roger Ebert are friends. I could relate to her through her writing. All I really knew was that she was funny, a little nerdy in that charming way, and able to find and link to interesting things. She was the kind of person you hear speak on TV or you read about in some interview and you say, you know, I think if I knew her I could actually be friends with her. I linked to her site once or twice, and she, once or twice, to mine. I never really knew her. But I still miss her.

She was local, and relatively well known in this e-knit Philadelphia blogging community. dutifully reported the news and compiled links to the posts of local bloggers who did the same. Phillyist, where she was once an editor, paid tribute over several posts. But the best place to go to remember Sarcasmo is her own blog. Her last post still hangs there at the top of the page, just another entry for another Friday, last Friday, her last Friday. It will remain there until someone either figures out her password and changes it or forgets to pay the webhosting bill and the page disappears. Right at the top, it eerily mentions death—not her own, which she couldn’t have predicted, but her computer’s—and the possibility of the post ending abruptly. Friends, colleagues, and visitors have left condolences in the comments. "Goodbye Star... You will be missed," says Camden. Luna adds, "I read the news and still can't believe it. The few times I met her she was always smiling, was a wonderful person, very friendly and full of life..." To Pax Romano, "It's heart breaking...just heart breaking."

If the Internet, as they said in 1996, is a highway, this is the closest it can get to a roadside cross. If you put something out there in cyberspace and are suddenly deleted from existence, what you wrote will still be there, your legacy. On the Internet your work is your memorial. And people who knew you, in real life or just through what you published online, will show up and leave offerings to mark the spot where you last were.

Jim Griffith is right when he explains that roadside memorials, like any memorial, really, are about the living more than the dead:
Sudden death of a loved one is horribly disruptive for most survivors. At one moment the person is alive; the next instant, often as the result of a violent accident, he or she is dead. There has been no period of sickness during which the survivors can prepare themselves for the coming loss, no formalized ritual such as the last rites of the church to mark the transition. Erection of a roadside cross can ritualize the fact of a loss, and provide the survivors with some meaningful action by which they can begin to lose the ties that bound them to their loved one.
Star Foster will have a memorial service and, I’m sure, some monument in a cemetery or plaque in a mausoleum, and those that saw her face and heard her voice in real life will visit, cry, and say prayers. But I’ll just swing back by Sarcasmo's blog every now and then to make sure it’s still there, to read what she wrote long ago, and maybe, every so often, to leave a comment.

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Image credits: "Roadside cross, near Lake Havasu City, AZ," jaho, courtesy Flickr, borrowed for news-reporting and comment purposes.