Discretion is key on road memorials

On a Route 128 overpass in Reading, “Welcome Home Sgt. Kenny Alve” is spelled out in red dots on a chain-link fence.
On a Route 128 overpass in Reading, “Welcome Home Sgt. Kenny Alve” is spelled out in red dots on a chain-link fence.
Peter DeMarco

For the longest time, whenever I drove along Woodland Road in Medford, I’d look for the tree: a massive oak, separated from hundreds of others by the cross and bouquet of flowers adorning it. It was a memorial for a Medford Vocational Technical High School teen whom I’d writen an article about after he died in a car crash on that spot.

You, too, I imagine, have passed by such somber markers, be they crosses planted in median strips, or photograph-laden utility poles strewn with candles.

Roadside memorials for accident victims are part of our driving landscape, ephemeral in nature. Their immediate purpose served, they become forgotten over time, fading away until the day a removal crew arrives.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

That’s the tough part, of course, for public works administrators. Most roadside memorials are on public property, so they can’t stay. But when to take them down, without being disrespectful, or causing more pain?

How do officials determine if they’re too distracting to motorists? Are there written guidelines, or is each case a judgment call? With Memorial Day upon us, I thought I’d find out.

We should start, though, with a more basic question: Does the public have a right, under freedom of speech, to create such memorials?

Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said such memorials are legal when erected “in a traditional public forum,” such as the Boston Common, where public speeches and rallies are held.

“The city has allowed unattended displays there — all kinds of Christmas stuff, a menorah gets placed there by a private party. So it’s a very traditional forum for public expression,” she said.

Highway medians, sidewalks, and bridge overpasses, however, are not traditional public forums.

“In those places, the government can restrict the people from putting up their stuff,” Wunsch said. “The cross where a kid drives off the road and dies? They don’t necessarily have the right to have that cross there.”

The same holds true for banners and signs hung on bridges in honor of soldiers who’ve died or returned home, she said.

But state and local officials nevertheless do allow such memorials to be created, and to remain up for months at a time, or longer.

From time to time, issues arise. In 2007, during the US troop surge in the Middle East, groups battled with state officials over the right to drape overpasses with everything from antiwar signs to US flags to the names of captured soldiers, according to previous Globe articles. In the end, the state acted to remove all unauthorized signs and banners that “weren’t properly secured” and could fall on cars.

Such displays are much less common nowadays. The only one I can think of appears on a Route 128 overpass in Reading, where a sergeant’s welcome home sign has been spelled out in red dots on a chain-link fence.

Sara Lavoie, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the state’s current policy is to allow such displays and roadside memorials to remain for a period of time, but not indefinitely.

“Mementos are occasionally placed at the scene of fatal incidents, and those come down in time,” she said in an e-mail. “Rarely are requests made for permanent memorials to be placed at the roadside, and rarely would they be allowed. Memorials are better situated where loved ones can visit and reflect safely, not along the side of a highway.”

As for overpass displays: “Similar situation — those also stay up for a time and then come down. Such displays have the potential to become a safety issue.”

I was hoping Lavoie could tell me how the difficult decision is made to remove someone’s memorial, but she would not elaborate.

Nor, does it appear, that the state has a written policy on the matter.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation, which controls numerous parkways statewide, likewise doesn’t have set guidelines.

“We try to respect the family and friends’ loss by leaving memorials for a period of time, based on how busy the area is, whether it’s impeding any pedestrian or vehicle traffic, and what kind of weather we’ve had [damaging] the memorial so that it’s no longer healthy-looking,” agency spokeswoman S.J. Port wrote to me.

Officials from communities I polled gave similar responses, saying it was important to show respect, but they were vague when pressed for details.

People need space to grieve, seems to be the consensus, even if that space is on the side of the road.