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.

On a car trip south to Spain from Denmark, and then back up north, I began to keep a small illustrated journal of wayside memorials. A few minutes out of Hellimer in northern France, a slender wooden cross rose out of the grain, heads of ripe wheat woven with the flowers that decorated the crosspiece. In Zarautz in the Basque region of Spain, a cliff face had created a blind curve, and built into the rock was a plaque, looking exactly like the grave markers in Philippine cemeteries, and inscribed with must have been nine or ten different names. A town or two away, in Usurbil, a rose bouquet and a marble marker sat on a low wall, the photograph of a young man laminated into the stone. And so on.

I spotted the eeriest markers in France. The first was on the road between Bourg and St. Paul-les-Romans: a black human silhouette standing about 1.6 meters tall, with a red zigzag at the head, like running blood. As we drove north, parallel to the border of Switzerland, I saw that they were part of some kind of government campaign, for the flat silhouettes – like targets on a firing range, like ghosts – were decorated with text at chest level. One said “48 ans” – no name, no details, just the age at which the person had died. Another, some kilometers later, on a twisting mountain road, said “44 dead in 10 years,” in French.

The most poignant memorial on that trip was outside the little village of St. Thibaud de Coux, in the French Alps. It wasn’t a cross, but an ancient-Egyptian ankh of blond wood, about one meter high, a rounded arch above the crosspiece instead of a single piece of timber. Something about this sign, maybe its New Age/Neil Gaiman trendiness, maybe the pink and white bouquet lashed to the arch, made me think the dead one might have been a young girl.

It was towards the end of our journey that I discovered the secret behind the freshness of the flowers: they were fake. Outside the town of Belfort, France, I begged my friend to stop the car so that I could photograph two bouquets mounted on opposite sides of the road. The site was lovely -- in the midst of fragrant, freshly harvested fields. Inside the car barreling down a highway at 130 kph, I had felt safe and hermetically sealed off; on the ground, my sense of vulnerability was heightened by the gusts from passing vehicles and the way the ground rumbled underfoot with the approach of each truck. It was a sweet and ironic place to die. I wondered if these two people, David and Carole, expiring meters apart, had perished in the same accident, and if they had been a couple, and if they had died far from home. Did their families drive by the spot often? It seemed those fabric lilies could last an eternity without replacement.

I was lucky in Belfort, for elsewhere it was impossible to photograph these memorials. They stood at points in the road where it was extremely dangerous to stop – a bridge, or a curve, or a depression beyond which there was a blind rise. Outside the town of Poligny in the French Alps stood a cross with the letters LOIC on the arms. An abbreviated inscription in Latin? Or the initials of the dead? It was mounted on the concrete bank at the apex of a dangerous blind curve – rock face on one side, ravine on the other. The westerly sun shining through the foliage threw alternating splinters of light and shadow into our eyes, blinding us. It was easy to see how someone could lose control of his vehicle and smash himself up at that point.

For of course the markers serve a dual purpose: to provide the families of these crash fatalities a chance to honor their dead, and also to serve as a warning to other motorists that they are approaching a hazardous stretch. They are a wordless reminder to drive as carefully as possible 100 percent of the time.

The fitness of such memorials has been much debated -- especially in North America where the practice has also taken hold -- on the ground that they can distract drivers or encourage curiosity-seekers to get out of their cars. This can lead to more accidents. In the United Statesand Northern Europe, where religious symbols on public land may cause offense to many people, simple black or white markers often stand in place of crosses. In parts of Denmark, billboards showing close ups of wildflowers remind drivers that life is beautiful. Elsewhere, clever slogans warn against drunk driving or speeding.

On the motorways, we always seemed to be overtaken by motorcycles that wove like hornets in and out of the speeding cars. In Spain, we saw a cyclist lying on his back at an intersection, surrounded by solicitous motorists. His machine, like the hood of the car that had hit it, was all crumpled up. A rash of highway deaths takes place in the summer months of July and August, when vacationers travel cross-country. Cyclists, riding alone or pillion, are the most vulnerable.

The European motorways make no space for roadside markers: it is illegal to stop except at designated emergency areas, giving the bereaved no chance to plant a cross. But reminders of danger exist anyway – in the skid marks that end in a twisted guardrail, or a blackened spot on the asphalt where a car burned up.

On our drive back north, we stopped in Poligny for coffee, an incredibly strong brew served in a tiny cup, a jolt enough to keep us alert for hours. As we sat at an open-air café, an ambulance wailed past. Wild reggae music poured from loudspeakers, and masses of pink and scarlet flowers hung from iron lampposts in the square. Men and women in their 20s conversed excitedly at the next table, and two motorcyclists in the sleek all-leather outfits common in this part of the world donned their helmets and pulled out.

High up on the cliff face overlooking the town, visible from where we sat, was a wrought-iron wayfarer’s cross. These are equally common in the landscape of Southern Europe, and even in parts of southern Germany, where many Catholics live. Made of stone or metal or weathered wood, some have been standing at intersections for centuries. They serve as talismans against the ancient evil that hounds travelers on lonely roads and blows in with the four winds. And in the present day they serve as a reminder of the length, the extent and the potency of European religious faith.

This article was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 30, 2005, when I was still based in the Philippines. Nowadays the article can still be found on-line through Africa Intelligence Wire, which apparently had a content agreement with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Here's the link:

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