Roadside memorials promote Christianity
Here in Austin Texas, the roadsides seem to be fertile ground for roadside memorial markers.  We can think of three primary purposes for a roadside memorial:
  1. To honor the death of a particular person.  Though, since the person is not buried at the roadside, the marker would primarily be for another purpose.
  2. To draw attention to the cause of death of that person in order to prevent deaths from similar causes in the future.  The most obvious of such causes are pedestrian automobile accidents and killings by drunk drivers.
  3. Some other purpose.
I think that most people assume that roadside memorials are nearly always about reason #2, that is, having something to do with preventing unnecessary death.  In order to examine this hypothesis, we did a tour of two major parallel arteries in South Austin:  William Cannon and Slaughter Lane.  The tour consisted of the most traveled parts of these arteries.  The William Cannon stretch was 6 miles and the Slaughter stretch was 5.5 miles.  We photographed and annotated all roadside memorials that we could find on these two sections of roads.  The results appear in the table, below.  In examining each memorial, we particularly looked for features of the memorial that fit the above purposes.

Here are a number of observations based on our little study:

  • There are quite a number of memorials, averaging 1 per mile on these roads.  Memorials seem to be much less common on less traveled roads in Austin, though one might suspect that auto-pedestrian accidents occur on non-thoroughfares and drunk drivers also use those roads.
  • All of the memorials chose a Christian symbol (the cross) as the dominant feature of the memorial.  Most of the crosses were 30-36" in height using 4"x4" wood as its material.  No non-religious memorials were found on these roads, though several do exist in Austin.
  • A minority, only 4 of 11, had any mention of a particular person.  For two of these, the type used was less than .5 inches in height--much smaller than the height of the religious symbol.  This seems to be evidence against the first purpose we suggested for these markers.
  • Only one of the memorials mentioned anything about the cause of death of the victim.  Even on this memorial, the message was dwarfed by the religious symbol.  This seems to be evidence against the second purpose that we suggested for these markers.
While it is impossible to know the intent of the people who placed the markers, the ostensible purpose based on our study, it is to promote Christianity.  Roadside memorials make an excellent niche for promoting Christianity.  Christianity can be promoted in a very public space while it can be easily claimed that the markers are for another purpose.  Out of respect for the dead and grieving relatives, the markers are largely left alone.  Nearly all of these markers are seen by thousands of people each day.

While the city ordinances are not clear, a call to the city confirmed that such memorials are not allowed on the city right of way.  They are prohibited because they are a distraction for drivers and they interfere with road maintenance.  Of course, government promotion of religion is unconstitutional, which is the main reason they should be disallowed.  The city, however, lacks the resources to enforce these laws, so they flourish.  Similar laws now exist at the county and state level.

The table, below, shows the results of our study.  The location gives the approximate address of each marker we found.  The cause of death, person's name, and religious message are those which were part of the marker.  Photos include a close-up shot of the marker and one which shows its situation relative to the street.  An indication is given as to whether the marker was on public property or not.  Austin's sign ordinances may apply to the placement of markers and other signs, even on private property depending on how close it is to the roadway.  We did not attempt to make this distinction for those on private property or easements.  Any additional comments about the marker are also given.

If you have further information on these markers or roadside memorials in general, write us.
Location Cause of Death Person's Name Religious Message Photos* Public property? Comments
2600 W. Wm. Cannon     36" Cross Close-up, Situation Public Steel cross set in concrete with artificial wreath
2000 W. Wm. Cannon     36" Cross Close-up, Situation Easement Artificial flowers
2000 W. Wm. Cannon     36" Cross Close-up, Situation Easement Artificial flowers
1800 W. Wm. Cannon Hit by drunk driver Sara Jayne Solter 30" Cross Close-up, Situation Easement 3" Plaque
~1100 W. Wm. Cannon   Sarah Jane Gonzalez + photo 30" Cross Close-up, Situation Public Photo, balloons, and flowers
~950 W. Wm. Cannon   Shawn Albert Deolloz 24" Cross + message about God & angels on plaque Close-up, Situation Public Steel cross set in concrete with artificial roses, 3" plaque
2500 E. Wm. Cannon     18" Cross Close-up, Situation Private Flowers, bow, & pinwheel
~7100 W. Slaughter Ln.     48" Cross + small Easter sign Close-up, Situation Private Wreath, teddy bear, Easter sign (fallen on ground)
~5100 W. Slaughter Ln.     30" Cross Close-up, Situation Public Handmade cross
~4700 W. Slaughter Ln.     30" Cross Close-up,
Public Set in rocks with flowers
~4600 W. Slaughter Ln.   Heather 30" Cross Close-up, Situation Public Set in rocks with flowers, angel, & butterfly

*All photos were taken March 11th, 2003.

Postscript: August 2005

It's been several years now and the trend I identified in this article has continued. Nearly all of the memorials are still there. In addition, there are new memorials on these two streets and they have appeared on other South Austin boulevards. Of these, nearly all are anonymous crosses with no real connection to traffic fatalities or a safe driving message. To the best of my knowledge, there are no such memorials in North Austin. I guess Christians only die on boulevards in South Austin. What's with that? Are Christians in South Austin being told to wander in major streets? I don't think so. More likely, they're being encouraged to promote belief in Jesus on public property.

There is one well-known secular memorial in Central Austin--the only secular memorial I know of in the entire city. (I have seen flowers at various locations, which might qualify, however, including the Lamar Street bridge that has had a number of pedestrian fatalities.) It was put up by Mary Boyd, who lost her son. It's main message is: "Don't drink and drive. You might kill someone's kid". At the risk of belaboring the obvious, this memorial is a clear message about the risks of drunk driving. The rest of the memorial is a sincere expression of her love for her son. No ulterior motives or hidden agendas. Furhtermore, she didn't create a concrete and steel hazard in memorializing her son. Why can't all roadside memorials have a benefit to the public as this one does?

On a related note, a University of Texas student did a dissertation on roadside memorials and used some of the South Austin memorials in her study. She tells the story behind the "Heather" memorial, for example. An article about her work is "Roadside Crosses and Memorial Complexes in Texas". The article claims that roadside memorials are allowed by the Austin signage codes, but only if they are of the forms approved by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Only a few meet this criteria. Her study did not appear to include the anonymous crosses that are the subject of this article.