Archive for Thursday, October 27, 2005

Roadside memorials help healing process

Marking the passing

October 27, 2005


Merle Zuel thinks of his stepson almost every day when he drives on Sixth Street and passes the Graystone Drive intersection.

A decorated iron cross on the north side of the street is a reminder of how and where 23-year-old Matt Thompson was killed: his motorcycle was hit by a pickup truck there Nov. 20, 2004.

"It sounds silly, but I kind of say 'Hi' to him in my own little way every time I go by," Zuel said.

Roadside memorials to accident victims have become increasingly visible over the years along city streets, county roads and state highways.

No one keeps track of the number of memorials that are out there, and creating such memorials is nothing new.

"I've been a trooper for 17 years and I've always seen them around," said Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. John Eichkorn. "I think they've maybe become more elaborate."

Long history

Trails of car lights are captured as drivers make their way down Sixth Street on Wednesday morning as sunlight begins to illuminate the sky over a roadside memorial for Matt Thompson, who was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 23 on Nov. 20 of last year. The memorial was placed on the north side of the street near Sixth Street and Graystone Drive by Thompson's family.

Trails of car lights are captured as drivers make their way down Sixth Street on Wednesday morning as sunlight begins to illuminate the sky over a roadside memorial for Matt Thompson, who was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 23 on Nov. 20 of last year. The memorial was placed on the north side of the street near Sixth Street and Graystone Drive by Thompson's family.

The practice of placing memorials along roadsides has a history that dates back long before the automobile. Pioneers traveling through the western United States often buried loved ones along wagon trails. The memorials usually consisted of a small wooden cross.

Some called the crosses "descansos," a Spanish word meaning rest or relief, and which symbolized the remembrance of life and death. Travelers sometimes stopped for a brief prayer when they came upon a descanso.

Today roadside memorials are used to help ease the grieving process for family and friends of the victims. Thompson's friends and family also see it is a reminder of an injustice. They were upset when the driver of the truck that hit Thompson was not charged with a crime.

"It was just one of the symbolic tragedies and a waste of a young life," Zuel said.

Last year on Christmas Eve friends and family held a candlelight vigil at Thompson's memorial.

"It was more of the healing process," Zuel said.

State officials don't know of any studies that have tried to judge whether roadside memorials cause drivers to be more cautious. Eichkorn thinks seeing them might have some effect.

"I think that generally it does make people think about a death that may have occurred at that location on a highway," he said. "I would hope that it would remind people to practice safe driving, buckle up and do all that you can so that we don't see something like that occurring again."

Steve Swartz, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation, agreed.

"I know personally it certainly gives me pause," he said. "It certainly doesn't hurt our traffic message for people to see crosses and memorials along the side of the road."

Showing understanding

State and local highway and road officials say they try to show respect and understanding for roadside memorials. Most are located on public highways or road right-of-ways.

"We want to work with people" Swartz said. "They're grieving and we understand that the memorials are something that helps family and friends. The main thing is to be understanding, but safety has to be assured."

The KDOT maintenance manual has a section that outlines how to handle roadside memorials. It calls for the local supervisor to evaluate the safety characteristics of a marker, both for motorists and highway maintenance crews. Unobtrusive markers placed well away from the highway usually don't need to be removed, according to the manual.

Graystone Apartments, 2500 W. Sixth St

"The main idea is just so there is safety and it doesn't create a situation that is difficult for mowing," Swartz said.

If the marker is not maintained and becomes an eyesore then it will be taken down. A KDOT representative will try to contact a family member about the matter, according to the manual.

There are no written rules concerning roadside memorials for Douglas County road maintenance crews to follow, county engineer Keith Browning said. He knew of only one memorial along a county road. The county has the same safety concerns the state has.

"If the memorial is being maintained and it is not a traffic obstruction we usually won't make a big deal out of it," Browning said.

Permanent placement

Thompson's memorial is on the edge of property belonging to Graystone Apartments, 2500 W. Sixth St. Family members received permission to place it there, Zuel said. The memorial was set in a small base of concrete and there are no plans to take it down, he said.

Zuel said he doesn't mind driving by the memorial even if it is a constant reminder of the death of a loved one.

"There are times when I don't think about it but most of the time my eyes dart over to it and I have a thought about him," Zuel said. "What happened to him was bad but I have a lot of good memories about him."


bankboy119 12 years, 7 months ago

The memorial is suppose to be public. It also signals a dangerous intersection or stretch of highway as well.

hawkeyes 12 years, 7 months ago

NorthLawrenceDude, this is your biggest pet peave ever?

"Why should the public have to look at private memorials?"

Should we take down all firefighter memorials, the Oklahoma City memorial, or the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial because you are annoyed?

Next thing, people are going to ask that we take crosses off of churches for fear of offending the public. Or build privacy fences around cemetaries so people driving by won't have to look at them. A small memorial is hardly an annoyance.

Prydain 12 years, 7 months ago

North and South Dakota have the "think" signs all along state and federal highways.

samsnewplace 12 years, 7 months ago

NorthLawrenceDude you are about as sensitive as a rock. I hope you never have to lose a loved one on the roadway. They don't bother me at all, they make me very sad for the family and their loss.

NorthLawrenceDude 12 years, 7 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

topflight 12 years, 7 months ago

Hey are think they are great for those who have lost love ones. The only problem is we have got to many of you damn RUBBERNECKERS who think they need to stare at it and you end up causing an accident. Pull your head out of your you know what and worry about your own self. If you want to see the thing, check for traffic, slow down, use your turn signal (most dont know what that is in the Lawrence area: It is that thingy on the left side of your steering wheel) and pull a safe distance onto the shoulder were you wont get hit and look at the memorial.

jwilson 12 years, 7 months ago

Hi. I just wanted to personally e-mail and thank those responsible for removing that horrible and insinsitive comment from that "northlawrencedude" He is obviously pining for attention and sadly enough, making a very uneducated comment on a serious matter is the only way he can get it.

In his comment "I dont give a damn"...etc. I wish he'd realize, its people like him that DONT give a damn that are the reason we have roadside memorials. People who are wreckless in their driving skills, people who drive under the influence of alcohol, etc and all in all end up ending a life because they" dont give a damn".

I hope that he never has to experience a great loss of a loved one. Maybe then.... he would give a damn.

Again, thank you to all the staff for being sensitive and removing the comment. It is greatly appriciated by Matt's friends and family.

Sincerely, Jessica Wilson (Matt's ex-girlfriend)

Calliope877 12 years, 7 months ago


I'm very sorry for your loss. I remember that day vividly. I was fortunate enough not to see the accident, but I did see the remnants of it and my heart sank depsite not knowing the victim. I hope I never see something like that again, and I say a little prayer for Matt everytime I pass by his memorial.

I personally don't think there is anything wrong with Roadside Memorials. They are pretty numerous on Highway 59, and each time I see one it has an impact on me and gives me chills.

mikiec 12 years, 7 months ago

Roadside memorials help family members with the loss of their loved ones. It is a tribute to that person that lost their life so suddenly. You should always respect a memorial even if you do not know the victim. I love the roadside memorial cross for Matthew Thompson, thats why I had it made. You see Matt was my little brother. I lost not only my brother that day but my best friend. I want to thank everyone who helps keep the cross decorated and in good condition, especially to Jess who always takes care of it.

To the person with rude comments, I pray you never lose someone that you love with all your heart. If you dont like roadside memorials then dont look!!!!

To anyone who has ever stopped at Matt's cross to put flowers,say a little prayer,or just stop to have a moment with him, THANK YOU. I know he watches out for everyone from up above.

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