Death’s Mementos

Every day I am moved by roadside memorials to people who weren’t ready to die. People who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re a constant reminder of how fragile we are—bits of bone wrapped in a flimsy shroud of a ridiculously unsuitable hide. We’re anything but fierce when up against poison, bullet, disease, or 3,000 pounds of steel, glass and chrome.

These two women touch my life almost every day. I did not know them but their memories live on. We should respect that.

Rose Johnson was a Bisbee artist who was enchanted by the island of Bali and traveled there in 2009. She died in a hospital in Denpasar on May 31, 2009 at age 48 from acute alcohol poisoning after consuming arak, a local alcoholic drink, which had been laced with the industrial solvent methanol. Twenty other people died a slow, painful death along with her that week. She does not have a traditional roadside shrine, but as a noted painter and muralist she has become a legend in Bisbee.

Mural by Rose Johnson along the Jonquil Motel in Bisbee

Peace Wall by Rose Johnson, Tombstone Canyon, Bisbee

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Stacia Barrett was a young rodeo rider. She died on March 30, 2005, one day before her 16th birthday. I can’t find an obituary for her, which is odd, but homemade roadside shrines are usually for victims of automobile accidents. This shrine, on a rural road in Hereford, Arizona, is very emotional, and always makes me think about her family, her friends, and her horse, and how very much they must miss her.

Stacia's shrine, Hereford, AZ

Stacia's short life

Picture of Stacia riding her horse "Dollar" at a rodeo in Benson, AZ. Photo credit: http://iconwesternimages.com/

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In some states it’s illegal to construct roadside shrines, and other states want to abolish them. They say the shrines are a distraction to drivers, and the crosses which many of them display offend some people. Bullshit. Cellphones, texting, superloud music, fighting with your kids in the back seat, sleeping at the wheel, drunks and idiots are distractions. Building shrines to our dead is what humans do and have always done. The shrines become part of the scenery and should be honored.


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19 responses to “Death’s Mementos

  1. I think you’re right about roadside memorials. There’s quite a lot in Australia, though I haven’t seen one as large as the one to Stacia Barrett, and I can’t see a problem with them. I wondered how recently people started making these memorials.

  2. I guess people have been doing it for centuries, obviously not for car accidents though. There’s been a resurgence of it in the past 20 years, though, and apparently it’s quite an issue in some places. But the arguments I read against it seem lame. Aren’t there much more deadly matters on the highways than crosses and flowers? And people are going to do it anyway even if it’s illegal.

  3. We have similar arguments here in Namibia. The deathtoll on our roads is ridiculously high – alcohol conusmption and speeding being the biggest contributors – and roadside memorials are placed at the sites of accidents to emphasize how regularly they occur. Authorities here also argue that they are distractions, illegal etc. but also won’t remove them. I find them pertinent reminders of our own mortality and reasons to remember to live while we can.

    • I’m usually against more laws, but a stronger presence of highway patrol cops would be helpful. Everybody bitches about “spot-checks” boohoo it’s such an inconvenience, but it saves lives. But in US, police forces are taking big cuts in budget and personnel. Instead they make stupid laws making it illegal to mourn your child with a shrine because it annoys people. WTF?

      Wow this issue is bigger than I knew. It’s worldwide. What a mess.

  4. We have many of them along the highways in northern Ontario and there’s a movement forming to outlaw them. I wonder why they don’t outlaw the signs posted every other mile to advertise some shabby motel or tourist traps sometimes situated hundreds of miles away. In my years travelling those roads i have seen many terrible accidents with many loss of lives, now when i go down the highway am remembered of those people, families, children who lost there lives. None of them i knew but i can think about the relatives that maintain those shrines and how they must feel about the prospect of becoming outlaws.

  5. Exactly—I didn’t even think of the enormous and often provocative billboards and signage. Come to think of it, I sometimes find it impossible to pass one without taking my eyes off the road trying to figure it out, because the billboards change and sometimes they’re weird and vague.

    I imagine the people who do the most complaining have not lost someone in this way, it’s just another thing to whine about.

    BTW, they would never enact an anti-shrine law in the US Southwest. The Spanish influence here is very strong and they honor their dead with not only shrines but festivals. I read that in New Mexico it’s actually illegal to remove a shrine! Occasionally the shrines here are vandalized, but they are fixed up within days.

  6. A shrine to honor and help people over the grief of a tragedy — there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You are correct about all the other distractions on the road. Shrines may distract, but they are a good thing. I think it probably makes people slow down and think about not drinking while driving.

  7. Good god! I just reread your post about Stacia. What a loss! That photograph of her and her horse shows youth, power and grace — in both her and her steed.

    • I knew those pictures of Stacia would touch you Jack, with your love of horses. I tear up every time I look at them. It takes great dedication to become a skilled rodeo rider by the age of 15, so it’s hard to imagine she was anything but a good girl.

      For someone to come along and destroy her shrine would be unthinkable and cruel.

  8. Stacia BARRETT
    Birth Date: 31 Mar 1989
    Death Date: 30 Mar 2005
    State or Territory Where Number Was Issued: California

    Death Residence Localities
    ZIP Code: 85615
    Localities: Hereford, Cochise, Arizona
    Miracle Valley, Cochise, Arizona
    Nicksville, Cochise, Arizona
    Palominas, Cochise, Arizona
    Parker Lake, Cochise, Arizona

    I would search California obits

  9. Wow, how the heck did you find this!? I did search CA obits because I saw her name on a cemetery plot listing, but still couldn’t find out what happened to her.

  10. Now both lives have been memorialized on the Super Web Highway for those who pass by. Made me pause and take stock an reflect on those I know who are gone by similar circumstance. Unfortunately I have known too many Rose Johnson’s and Stacia’s. “Bad things happen to good people” if I have the quote correct. Roadside memorials that we come upon are placed there by families, for the most part, to do us all a common good – they make anyone with a conscience adjust and drive in a way that would prevent similar tragedies, hopefully common sense prevails regarding roadside memorials.

  11. Nice metaphor, thanks.

    I think the shrines are a necessary grieving process for family and friends, and I agree that they have the power to do us all a common good if we heed them. Drivers who are not mindful can’t be policed, but maybe the shrines will make them pay attention. Maybe not.

    Wherever there’s life, bad things happen to good people. People try to say there’s a reason, but there isn’t. That’s just something people say to make themselves feel better.

  12. Take away this ‘distraction’ and you take away a family’s right to express grief and even find solace. If anything, when I see these roadside memorials, it actually reminds me to stop being such a hoon driver and to just chill out over whatever is busting my chops at that moment. Because it can all end in one moment as it did for the 2 talented local people in your world. In Fiji I saw huts and front gardens dotted densely by the long winding roads, and pretty much at the front of each house were the tomb-stones of lost loved ones, some gardens had half a dozen of them clustered together. These aren’t just roadside memorials, they’re home-side memorials, which is definitely a fine way of keeping your loved ones close. I loved it!

  13. Hey Officials Everywhere take note! Leave the damn shrines alone. Where’s your heart? I actually read one anti-shrine article where a guy says he doesn’t like them because “they’re depressing.” Dude, take a Prozac.

    And as for the shrines being “in the way,” officials would serve their constituencies much better by picking up all the bloody garbage on the roads instead of removing memorials.

  14. I was amongst those who thought road side memorials were too big a distraction and could in fact impact even more of us in the world of highly distracted drivers. But after reading this I see your point of view. Perhaps we are all moving too fast and need to think about loss, not only about those we know but those we don’t know.
    I really appreciate your point of view. Thanks for enlightening me.

  15. I can see how you would think that living as you do in the wild. Thanks for taking the time to read this and being open to different views.

    Now if I could only learn to accept the amount of litter on the roads here, it would help soothe my frustration and annoyance with the slobs who put it there. The other day I shook my finger at a guy who threw a beer can out his car window, and he responded using another finger.

  16. Stacia was my neighbor and one of my best friends. I was really moved when I saw this. I have her obituary, if you still have been unable to find it. She was an absolutely amazing person, and I still miss her so dearly.

    • Dear Sarah, you must miss her so much. I wish I knew more about her but information was scarce online, which I thought was surprising. I pass by her shrine often and always feel a pang of sadness. When people see that picture of her on Dollar, they say she looks as if she was born to ride, she makes it look so effortless.

      My email address is on my blog page. I would like to read her obituary, yes, and learn more about her. I appreciate you writing very much, and for understanding that this article was about how touched people are by her, still.

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