Descansos pay tribute to dead, comfort to mourners

By: Molly Gorny | Date: Sun, August 10th, 2014

Descansos for Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson
Photo by Lord Jim CC-BY-2.0

Photo by Lord Jim

You have probably seen them as you drive down the highway, white crosses surrounded bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals, and photographs. Or perhaps you spot a collection of remembrance candles located near a lamp post. What you are seeing is a modern take on the age old tradition designed to honor the dead and offer comfort to mourners. The practice, known in the Southwest as Descansos, began when the Spanish planted crosses along the el Camino Real to commemorate members of their party who died during the difficult journey north from Mexico.

Descansos are especially prominent in the Southwest from not only an artistic standpoint, but from a historical standpoint as well.

“Even when the Spanish government was coming up the Camino Real,” the NHCC’s Garcia says, “they would put little markers where people died, from Mexico City to northern New Mexico.”

While the crosses we see in most parts of the country are simple, the displays can be quite elaborate. This is particularly true in the Southwest where the practice is time honored and strong. The Navajo of Albuquerque are particularly active in honoring the tradition.

In some communities the practice is quite controversial as descansos are sometimes considered a distraction on the road. Several states have enacted legislation in order to clarify just what should happen to the memorials. Colorado, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts have banned them altogether. Regardless of legislation, the practice continues. With it’s deep roots in history and the emotions that surround the erection of such memorials, it is likely that we will continue to see the makeshift shrines as we drive along the road.

Read the full article here: Descansos pay tribute to dead, comfort to mourners

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