Some thoughts about roadside shrines
Here in New Mexico, with a large Hispanic-Catholic population, descansos are a common roadside sight. The literal meaning of descanso is "a place to sit down," and historically, they were roadside shrines marking the location where somebody died, at which the weary traveler could stop, rest, and say a little prayer for the dead.
This past week, Holy Week, many of the descansos along New Mexico's highways have been visited and decorated by the families of the deceased. Some of the decorations have been quite elaborate.
I have heard arguments against descansos, that they clutter up the landscape, that they create a safety hazard by distracting drivers, that they make a public display of mourning that the family and friends of the deceased ought to keep private. A few years back, the state of Texas attempted to ban the shrines, on the grounds that if they were in a public right-of-way, they constituted a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
I don't see it that way. A beautiful descanso doesn't clutter the landscape; it adds an emotional element – albeit a bitter one – that wouldn't otherwise be there. It doesn't distract drivers so much as it gives a warning: Somebody died here; drive carefully! There's an intersection in a school zone south of Española on the highway to Los Alamos that has 14 descansos – 14 schoolchildren, picked off one or two at a time, by careless drivers who didn't slow down to the 15-mph school zone speed and kept barreling along at the 50-mph highway speed. (After many long years, the state highway department redesigned the intersection, improved signage, and lowered the speed limit on the stretch of highway leading to the school zone. The death toll has remained 14 for a long time.)
As for the supposed violation of the separation of church and state, that argument doesn't hold water. While the vast majority of descansos are erected by Catholics, I feel that anyone, of any religion or of no religion, should be able to honor a dead family member or friend in whatever way feels right. In Europe, bicyclists will honor a fallen comrade with a "ghost bike" – a bicycle, painted solid white, erected as a shrine at or near the site of the fatal accident – regardless of the bicyclist's religion.
Unlike Texas, the government in New Mexico has recognized the value of descansos. It is now against state law to remove or deface a roadside memorial. If a shrine is in the way of road construction, the construction company must, when the construction is done, replace the shrine as close as possible to where it originally was.
Some people may be uncomfortable being exposed to other people's mourning. But if the family and friends of the deceased have chosen to put up a shrine, it is because they want to share with the community. I respect that.