Roadside memorials, sometimes called “descansos” or “resting places,” were once erected by Spanish settlers where one who had died along the trail without benefit of a church cemetery might be laid to rest. In the 1940s and 50s the highway patrol erected white crosses at the scene of fatality collisions to warn people to be careful. Out of the two traditions has grown the relatively new practice of roadside memorials.
Approximately 42,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year in the United States. An estimated 5-10 percent will have a temporary memorial set up by the grieving family. This is a contentious issue; Some consider them to be a roadside blight and others that they are distracting and dangerous. Generally, consideration for the grieving family is put first and the memorials remain for a time and as they fall into disrepair they are taken down.
California’s official policy is that an state sanctioned sign may be erected at a site where an alcohol or drug related fatality has occurred. The family pays a one-time fee of $1,000. All other memorials are technically “illegal” and may be removed at any time. Generally, this only happens when the site is deemed to be too dangerous.
In the summer of 2008, Jane Pojawa began a photo survey of the descansos of Desert Hot Springs, California and researched the individuals who lost their lives on these roads. The results were surprising.