by Jim Griffith
This is the fifth in a series of short photo essays on occupation and ethnicity as they are revealed in Arizona grave markers, with this entry focused on the ADOT’s unpublicized program of removing death markers:
It was 1783, and Bishop Reyes of Sonora was disturbed by the custom of placing a trailside cross at every place where a traveler had been killed by Apaches. The practice cheapens the sacred symbol, he believed, exposing it to acts of irreverence. Besides this, it frightens the passers-by, and only encourages the Apaches. The Bishop took these concerns to the appropriate authorities, who commanded that the crosses be removed.
Fast forward to January, 2016. New Spain has vanished, and its northwestern frontier is now divided between two new countries — Mexico and the United States. The blame has shifted. The internal combustion engine is now the principal cause of death on the road. However, the crosses remain… or do they? Surprisingly, the Arizona Department of Transportation, encouraged by Governor Doug Ducey, embarked on an unpublicized program of removing roadside death memorials from all state highways. This activity has engendered public outcry, as families have seen the fates of their loved ones forcibly eradicated from the visual roadside record.
The practice of erecting a cross as the site of a sudden death is an old one in the Mexican world. We know it was common in 18th-Century Sonora; oral tradition pushes it well back into the 1500s. The ties between custom and place seem strong indeed. While many Arizona families are recent arrivals, many others, especially in the southern part of the state, have been erecting roadside memorial crosses for generations. Of equal importance is the fact that this is the United States, not Mexico or New Spain, two countries where the power of decision-making was — and is — centralized.
What are these roadside crosses, who puts them up, and what purpose do they fulfill? They mark the sites of fatal accidents — places where the soul left the body without warning or spiritual preparation. In Catholic doctrine, these souls need the prayers of the living to move past Purgatory. Many Catholics respond to their family’s death crosses in this same way, saying a short prayer for their loved ones. For others, the crosses serve as poignant reminders of family loss. For still others, they can be warnings of a potentially dangerous stretch of road. In no case that I am aware of are they involved with religious proselytization, as are some roadside crosses (“Prepare to Meet Thy God”) in the Bible Belt. For many of the families who erect the crosses, their sites constitute sacred ground.
There was a time in the 1940s when the Highway Patrol erected small, white crosses on the sites of fatal accidents. Earlier still, the Highway Department put up a series of commemorative stone niches near the border. However, none of these were personalized.
Most of the arguments in favor of banning the crosses involve their potential to distract motorists. This may be more of a justification than a reason. Billboards and other public signage seem to me to be more distracting than roadside crosses. However family death memorials are not backed up by a powerful business lobby, as is public advertising. I am reminded of the adage that if you wish to make a reputation as a dragon slayer, it’s wise to select a small dragon with no flame and few teeth.
I am certainly no lawyer, and have no idea of the weight of custom in matters of law such as this. What I do know is that these crosses have been around for hundreds of years, and their summary removal by a state agency without warning or explanation to the public is an act of arrogance, insensitivity, and discourtesy. We should expect — and get — more from our public servants. I am pleased to read that the Department of Transportation is “reconsidering” a situation that never should have happened in the first place.
- 1992: Griffith, James S., Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimería Alta. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992, pp 100-104.
- 2005: “Voices from Inside a Black Snake: Religious Monuments of Sonora’s Highways,” Journal of The Southwest, (4-2) 233-248, September, 2005.
- 1991: Kozak, David, and Camillus Lopez, “The Tohono O’odham Shrine Complex :Memorializing the Locations of Violent Death” New York Folklore 17: (1-2): 1-20.