I began photographing roadside memorials close to home in western Oregon a few years ago. How do these differ from cemetery markers? They are not burials among ancestors, descendents, familiars and unfamiliars shouldered together in plots. This is the place on earth where life changed to death, where Born met Died, where personal breath (so long intaken for granted, and exhaled as a matter of fact) rejoined the universal but impersonal air. And though many are lovingly maintained and hung with souvenirs and messages from the living, few are made of anything more permanent than painted wood.
Randy, whose helmet tells us he was a motorcyclist, and whose flags suggest he served and loved his country, was killed in 2007 on a straightaway between two Highway 99 curves near Saginaw. Javier Ayala, whose name-cross wears its own pectoral cross, died near a hazelnut orchard where Perryville Road crosses rail tracks before T-boning into Highway 99.
Almost always these memorials commemorate a site of violent death, however accidental: death involving motor vehicles. They bear witness, then, not only to the grief of survivors, but as posthumous warnings to the living (who dart by, often exceeding the posted speed for reasons justifiable to no one but themselves). Almost always the memorial is close to the ground: Swing low, death, be not proud. Rarely does it loom higher than a mother kneeling over a child.
Sometimes I find them driver-level or higher, nailed to power poles. (Which should surprise no one raised in the culture of Jesus crucified and arisen, though nailing a small cross to a larger cross reminds me of a line from the poet Tom Lux: “like stabbing a stab wound.”)
After I stopped for the first, others began to show themselves. It was not a coincidence that the search rewarded safer, slower driving. Although my peripheral radar grew more sensitive, it was now as though I was being called forth, given a sign. They signaled their presence and I stopped to visit. Their testimonies, freely visible to any and all, changed me from a casual collector of roadside curiosities to a pilgrim.
One small final revelation disguised as a technical note: in order to properly make their image–to show their relation to the last place on earth where this person breathed–I almost always have to kneel. Photography turns prayerward. And because I kneel, I find it natural and proper to offer thanks for this meeting between my life and their afterlife before driving away. I invite you to see these memorials as supplications by the dead to not be forgotten, and by their survivors to not forget who suffered here; and as warnings–like their dull bureaucratic cousins Speed Limit and Curve Ahead but far more personal–reminding passersby to cherish life yet not take its outcome for granted while fiddling with radio buttons or an incoming text message at sixty miles per hour. A warning old as Ecclesiastes. I first read it on an 18th century churchyard gravestone in my hometown:
Stop here my friend and cast an eye / As you are now so once was I / As I am now so you must be…