Friday, January 25, 2013

Death by the Wayside: Memorials in southern Europe

This article was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 30, 2005

Visitors to Europe usually put soaring cathedrals and little village chapels at the top of their must-see list. Nowadays, it has been wryly observed, tourists tend to outnumber worshippers in these places.

Yet there is poignant evidence of how religion infuses the lives of the general populace. Driving through a landscape of fields, punctuated by neat rolls of hay in the late summer, one comes across small wayside crosses, not on the motorways but on the smaller roads that link the towns.

They mark the site where a life ended in a road accident. Where someone’s journey abruptly stopped. Flower bouquets lie at the base of many of these crosses. Some are lashed to the arms. These memorials are most abundant in the traditionally Catholic southern countries, such as Belgium, France and Spain. One also finds them in Latin America and parts of the southwestern United States, where they are known as descanos, Spanish for “rest” or “relief.” In Chile they have become quite elaborate, like miniature chapels, with a photograph of the deceased within.

In the Philippines, especially in less urbanized areas, the site of a fatal road accident is also marked by a makeshift cross, fresh flowers plucked from a nearby shrub, and candles. Travelers pass the shrine and shudder. After dark, bloodstains on the asphalt glow an eerie green. But after a week of rain and heat, the bougainvilleas or hibiscus wilt completely and the crosses fall apart. Few people have the resources for permanent shrines, and roads are so narrow a concrete structure would be a hazard. Families worry that vandals or animals may desecrate something more lasting. Else they dismantle the sad little memorials themselves, dreading their use by malevolent spirits, their transformation into a portal for denizens of a different world.