I remember the day my friend Loren West died like it was yesterday. But, in fact, it wasn’t yesterday, or the day before, or even last year. No, it’s been about 30 years or so since my friend was killed one afternoon in a motorcycle accident, just days before school was out for the summer. It’s amazing what you can remember from when you were an 11-year old child.
Much like cancer, there’s a good chance we’ve all lost someone to an automobile or traffic accident. There’s a heartbreaking tale inside all of us of someone we loved ripped from our lives as they were heading to work or the store or school or nowhere in particular.
I think its human for us to somehow think we are going to forget the people we have lost in our lives. To prevent this, we build shrines and memorials and do things in honor of the people we don’t want to forget, although it is virtually impossible for us to forget them.
One way people in the area memorialize those who were lost in traffic accidents is by placing markers such as crosses or flowers or even photos along the sides of the roads near the scene of the actual accidents.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation issued a press release last week in an attempt to discourage people from placing these types of memorials on state roads and highways.
“These memorials not only endanger the distracted driver, they also endanger the person placing the memorial along the highway,” Melinda McGrath, MDOT executive director, said in the press release. “Any area remotely close to a highway can be an extremely dangerous location.”
The press release went on to say that blocking state right of ways is a federal offense.
The removal of these memorials, particularly in Monroe County, has angered a lot of people. I will never forget seeing Monroe County Coroner Allen Gurley on WCBI trying to hold back tears as he talked about a cross being removed from the intersection in Hamilton where his youngest daughter was killed in 2011. I knew that little girl since she was born, and to see her father, who has suffered tremendously in the past couple of years, trying not to cry as he talked about the removal of a cross that was tied to a light pole in honor of his daughter, well, it really got to me.
According to the press release, MDOT claims it is removing the memorials with “extreme care” and the items are being stored at local MDOT offices.
I understand the legalities regarding state-owned right of ways. However, to say the memorials are distracting and thereby unsafe may be somewhat misleading. In this day and age, what’s not distracting? We are surrounded by distractions all day long, from the time we awaken until the time we go to sleep.
Mississippi is one of a handful of states where driving and texting is forbidden by law. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But if roadside memorials are going to be deemed unsafe, then certainly the state should look at banning texting and driving for everyone. What could be more distracting than texting while behind the wheel of an automobile?
The push to remove roadside memorials also seems like an odd move for Public Service Commissioner Mike Taggert, who was elected as a Republican. Republicans are the first to whine and cry that the government is too big and that it needs to be smaller. Is outlawing and hastily removing tributes to deceased loved ones not a huge step in making government bigger?
The issue doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal in Lowndes County. I asked District 1 Supervisor and Board President Harry Sanders about the county’s rights when it comes to its roads.
“The county has no jurisdiction on state roads or highways or state-aid roads,” Sanders said. “We only have jurisdiction on the county roads.”
I asked Road Manager Ronnie Burns if makeshift memorials were a problem on the county roads.
“I only know of two or three of them,” Burns said. “It’s not a problem for us. But I see where the state is making a deal to tear them down on state roads.”
This seems to be really affecting some people who live in Monroe County. I was told the state took down all of the memorials in Smithville, the ones that had been there since the devastating tornado of 2011.
Perhaps a bit more compassion could be shown to those who have suffered loss? While we should all understand that rules are rules and rules are to be followed, people need to grieve, and grieving doesn’t adhere to any set times or schedules.
To paraphrase Gurley, “When I saw that my daughter’s cross had been removed, it made me feel like someone had stolen the flowers off of her grave.”
I assume that’s a feeling no one wants to feel.
Jeff Clark is the Managing Editor of The Packet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/packet0