- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

The family was gathered around the kitchen table, talking about a terminally ill aunt, when the conversation turned to what each would want done with their bodies should they die.
"I don't want to be underground with worms crawling all over me," blurted 18-year-old Brian Rector.
His mother, Deena Breeden, would recall those words when, just a few months later, he was fatally injured in a highway accident. Family members opted for an increasingly common type of remembrance after Brian's body was cremated.
They erected a roadside memorial.
Now, that Colorado memorial is at the center of a legal dispute that highlights Americans' conflicting feelings about the markers that are being created for a growing fraction of the 42,000 people who die each year on U.S. roadways.
Across the nation, legislatures, courts and families are struggling with questions the memorials raise.
Are they protected cultural or religious expressions, as some say? Or are they traffic hazards? Are they a public imposition of private grief, or a fitting tribute in an era that has trouble "dealing with death?"
It had just rained, making slush out of winter's last taste of snow, when Brian Rector drove his Ford Escort down Interstate 70 near Aurora, Colo., to his grocery job in March 1998.
Just as he took an exit, a semitruck went out of control on the slippery road and smashed into Mr. Rector's car. The young man died a short time later.
The Breedens put a cross, along with flowers and two small angels, on the grassy median next to where the accident occurred because that is where, Mrs. Breeden says, her son's spirit left his body.
For two years, they drove by, stopping occasionally to add decorations flowers or notes, flags at the Fourth of July, wreaths at Christmastime.
"Because we don't have a cemetery plot to go to ," Mrs. Breeden explained, "we definitely want to keep up the memorial forever."
Experts say there's more behind spontaneous memorials, which don't just show up on roadways. Tributes materialized overnight throughout lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks and, earlier, around the bombed Oklahoma City federal building and sites associated with Princess Diana's fatal accident.
"The roadside memorial may indicate dissatisfaction with the traditional mourning practices the funeral and the cemetery are not enough anymore," wrote professors Jennifer Clark and Majella Franzmann in January's RoadWise, the journal of the Australian College of Road Safety.
By marking an accident site, survivors create "a living memory of this person's life," said Donna Schuurman, president of the Connecticut-based Association for Death Education and Counseling, a networking group for people in grief-related industries.
In Colorado, a driver who regularly passed Brian Rector's memorial grew quietly aggravated with it and several others that he encountered daily en route to work at Denver International Airport.
"I had gone through a lot of personal turmoil myself," said the driver, Rodney Lyle Scott, now 35. "I didn't appreciate somebody else throwing their hurt and sorrow out for the public view, as if it was more important than someone else's hurt or losses."
After dark one night in April 2000, a state trooper spotted Mr. Scott's pickup on the side of the road with its hazard lights on. In the bed of the truck was a collection of flowers and wooden crosses.
Mr. Scott told the trooper he was "cleaning up the interstate."
Thinking Mr. Scott had permission to do so, the trooper let him go.
Soon, the Breedens and other families noticed their memorials missing and complained. They found a sympathetic ear at the office of Adams County District Attorney Robert Grant.
Mr. Scott, identified through his license number taken by the trooper, was charged with "desecration of a venerated object" and faced the possibility of six months in jail and a $750 fine.
The varied elements in roadside memorials, sometimes including religious symbols, and the deep emotions attached to them complicate decisions on how to deal with them.
In New Mexico, memorials are called "descansos," Spanish for resting, and are protected as "traditional cultural properties" under the Historic Preservation Division.
There, people have been making their own grave markers out of flowers, mementos, pumpkins, tin cans, going back to the Spanish Colonial period, according to Elma Baca, the division's director.
"They are real, original, personal statements," she said. "We see it as folk art."
Other states' rules vary, and many have been revised as the roadside memorial custom has spread.
Last year, for example, roadside memorials were banned outright as traffic hazards in North Carolina; families of victims are encouraged to participate in the federal Adopt-A-Highway program.
In California, memorials are "discreetly removed" as road hazards, except in cases where a victim is killed by a drunken driver and there is a conviction. In those cases, for a $1,000 fee, the state will erect a sign with the victim's name and a message about drinking and driving.
What do the feds say?
No federal study has been done, but some officials worry about accidents.
Interstates' right of way extends well past the shoulder "so that if you wander off the pavement, you have time to recover," said Robert Black, an attorney for the Federal Highway Administration, which pays to buy and maintain U.S. highways, though they are owned and run by states.
Mr. Black fears a day when highways may look like graveyards, with proxy headstones every few feet.
After Mr. Scott was charged in Colorado with desecration of a venerated object, a Denver lawyer named Bob Tiernan offered to represent him for free.
Mr. Tiernan, 68, is a member of the Madison, Wis.- based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which rallies for separation of church and state.
Roadside memorials "are using public property to endorse religion it's a violation of the U.S. Constitution, as far as I'm concerned, and it's a serious distraction for drivers," said Mr. Tiernan.
The religious theme of many roadside memorials was challenged two years ago in Oregon when a legislator proposed a law to specifically protect roadside crosses, after constituents complained the state was removing them.
Protesters responded by putting up placards along highways, showing black crosses with either red slashes or the numbers 666 through them. The American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue, contending the law would unconstitutionally protect religious statements over other speech.
The Oregon Department of Transportation wound up outlawing all roadside memorials as traffic hazards.
Mr. Tiernan's belief in church-state separation was not the only reason he was drawn to Mr. Scott's case. Ironically, Mr. Tiernan understands Deena Breeden's pain all too well.
On a rainy summer night in 1981, while driving to his family's mountain cottage in West Virginia, Mr. Tiernan lost control of his car, which smashed into a tree, causing his 13-year-old son severe brain damage. The boy died a year and a half later.
"It's my grief," said Mr. Tiernan. "Everyone has grief in your life, you deal with it without forcing other people to deal with it. I didn't put up a memorial on Route 50, because I wanted to do something useful with my grief."
In April 2001, Mr. Tiernan won acquittal for Mr. Scott when a judge ruled the Rector memorial was "discarded refuse" and "unlawful advertising" under the law, not a venerated object.
Mr. Grant, the district attorney, appealed. If he loses on appeal, Mr. Grant said he'll petition the Colorado Supreme Court.

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