Community column: Memorials, official and unofficial, sprout along roadways
Memorial Day celebrations for 2012 will include an appropriate mix of homage and hotdogs. We pause to remember our own dearly departed and ceremonies across the commonwealth will recall the ultimate sacrifice of our service men and women. This day is also known as the unofficial start of summer. The interesting juxtaposition lends a bittersweet quality to the holiday.
The basic need to memorialize loved ones is evident in many places. Cemeteries and grave sites will bear new floral arrangements or flags. The newspaper obituary section expands to include special dedications. Roadside memorials — those eclectic shrines marking the site of a fatal accident — may receive special attention.
The practice and aesthetic of roadside memorials have long captured my imagination. As with our Memorial Day festivities, a tension exists here. The tributes serve as a brave, often homespun, reminder of lives lost — most before their time. They remind of danger and sometimes, foolhardiness. In the case of the youngest victims, they are starkly tragic. They resonate with the personal, often including elements special to the honoree. And, in spite of all they represent and the comfort they might provide, they are against the law.
“It is technically illegal to place any sort of signage or memorial on VDOT right-of-way,” confirms Virginia Department of Transportation Spokesman Jason Bond. I contacted Bond because I wondered how the more personalized constructs weigh in against the formalized roadside memorials we’ve seen along our thruways in the past few years. These are the ones in standard black and white, reading DRIVE SAFELY In Memory of. Family members may purchase these signs through VDOT, following a formal process that includes some $300 to $400 in expenses.
The statewide program was adopted through legislation in 2002. The VDOT website includes all the rules and physical requirements for the signage. Like many things governmental, they’ve dotted all of their i’s and crossed all of their t’s. (Find roadside memorial information here. But like all things human and of emotions, it’s a bit messier than the official language would lead you to believe.
“The department is caught in a predicament between grieving families and meeting the letter of the law,” Bond acknowledges. “Public safety is the primary issue. Getting out of a car and being along a roadway endangers people.” Sure, that makes sense. The last thing a family in this situation would need is another traffic-related tragedy.
But many of the self-made memorials are next to roads with generous shoulders. When photographing some examples throughout the New River Valley, I felt essentially safe the entire time. Of course, I wasn’t out shooting memorials along I-81. And maybe that’s why the VDOT system is best served on the interstates and that is, indeed, where we see most of them. According to Bond, 177 VDOT-sanctioned memorial signs have been erected across Virginia. In our 12-county VDOT district, there are 22.
You can’t beat back the power of personal here, though. Even though they abide by the law, some families add a unique touch to the official signage. On every trip to Richmond, I pass one such VDOT-approved sign on I-64 — very staid and orderly, surrounded by the loveliest rock and flower garden.
By Catherine Van Noy
Special to The Burgs | 639-3330
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