A fight over how to display roadside death

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sun, January 2nd, 2011

A man driving a van packed with mourners returning from a funeral in northern India crashed through a mound of sand then collided head-on with a bus last week, killing 35 people.

Descansos are roadside memorials erected at the site of fatal traffic accidents. They are most common in Mexico and the American Southwest but have spread worldwide. Some legislatures are trying to ban them.

Last year in Jiangshan, China a bus carrying mourners plunged off a steep mountain road and fell more than 300 feet into a ravine, killing eleven people. These deaths, on the way to and from funerals, are symptomatic of a larger trend. More than 110,000 people die each year in India in road accidents, a statistic even greater than that of China, where the figure is about 75,000. In America the number is closer to 45,000. Although less people in the US die each year in auto accidents auto deaths have been happening here for longer. The phenomenon is so engrained in the popular culture that a tradition has actually developed around it, that of the descanso, roadside memorials erected at the site of fatal traffic accidents.

In Spanish, descansar means to rest and the custom of descansos is thought to have come from the ancient Spanish tradition of placing stones where pallbearers once rested on their way from the church to the cemetery. Spanish conquistadors brought the custom to the New World, when their comrades died on the trail crosses were left to mark the spot. Today descansos are found as far away Egypt, Germany and Australia but they are most common along rural highways in Mexico and the American Southwest.

In an essay entitled Descansos: A Tribute of Love, folklore student John Rodriguez explains that Texas descansos “vary in size and color and the amount of different artifacts found around them. Some are made very simply of plastic coronas to steel crosses and cement foundations.” Rodriguez discusses how the seasonal movement of Hispanic farm laborers has helped spread the practice to all corners of the United States. His website also features numerous descanso photos; wreaths stuck to a barbed wire fence, flowery crosses in the grass, a trio of crosses atop a patch of white stones in the shape of a heart and one shrine more than a decade old that includes glass from the taillight of the wreck and a piece of tire. The biggest descanso in Texas and perhaps the world notes Rodriguez is in Alton, where in 1989 21 children lost their lives when their school bus collided with a truck and plunged into a pit.

Thanks to the efforts of the Texas branch of the group Mothers against Drunk Drivers (MADD), local judges can force someone who takes a life on the road to erect a descanso for the person they killed. But in other places the practice has been questioned. Earlier last year a special British council implemented a scheme to remove roadside memorials no more than 30 days after the fatality. Flowers, crosses and even a teddy bear or a motorcycle helmet would all have to go. Although the council was called insensitive they claimed that the markers are a distraction, which on occasion can lead to further traffic fatalities. Such was the case with a woman in Victoria, Australia.

In one of the only books on the topic, Descansos: An Interrupted Journey, Rodolfo Anaya poignantly describes the spread of descansos in the American Southwest.

“The old descanso became the new as the age of the automobile came to the provinces of New Mexico…Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young…Time has transformed the way we die…One word describes the change for me: violence. The cuentos of the people became filled with tales of car wrecks, someone crippled for life in an accident. The crosses along the country roads increased. Violent death had come with the new age. Yes, there was utility, the ease of transportation, but at a price.”

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