Place, Meaning, and the Visual Argument of the Roadside Cross
2 Savannah Law Review 265 (2015)
36 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2015 Last revised: 27 Aug 2015
Date Written: July 20, 2015
Roadside memorials are cenotaphic in so far as they honor a person whose corporeal remains lie elsewhere. They powerfully express the pathos of loss felt by the bereaved. These memorials are part of a global phenomenon where kith and kin create spontaneous shrines to deceased loved ones. And they are intensely personal, idiosyncratic expressions of loss and remembrance.
Death and grieving have escaped the socially acceptable zone of the cemetery and are now confronting others as they go about their daily lives — commuting along our nation’s roadways. Part I examines how some bereaved are sanctifying public spaces by erecting private memorials. These memorials are places of remembrance, of pilgrimage, and of warning. They are heterotopic sites that simultaneously seek to keep a relationship with the deceased alive and to bring healing and closure to the grieving process.
Yet this use of public space for private grief is not without contest. These private memorials, which often employ sectarian symbols, can create unwanted vicarious trauma, traffic safety hazards, and Establishment Clause concerns, which are discussed in Part II. Part III explores the visual argument of ventilating private grief on public spaces. Roadside crosses are a means to resist the erasure of a loved one. Individually, the crosses make the visual argument that the deceased was valuable, and he is missed. Collectively, the phenomenon is a critique of modern transportation, modern culture, modern death practices, and modern religion.
But by allowing these crosses to remain and proliferate along the roadside, is there a mixed message sent on behalf of both the memorial maker and the government? Part IV reviews current Establishment Clause jurisprudence relevant to roadside crosses. And Part V addresses the rhetorical effect of the Latin cross and Establishment Clause concerns to religious outsiders. The unresolved question is what the reasonably well-informed observer concludes. This Article provides background and context to inform the hypothetical Establishment Clause observer.
Keywords: Roadside memorial, Latin cross, Establishment Clause, reasonable observer, visual argument
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