Thursday, August 23, 2007

"That's Where Her Soul Left Her Body"

Missing Roadside Memorials Spark Debate

Pattie Hansen took comfort in the five crosses that marked the spot on a Petaluma road where last year her only daughter died in a crash.

Then one day this summer, the crosses were gone.

“I sat in the car and cried,” she said.

Roadside memorials are disappearing across Sonoma County, including at the spot on Industrial Drive in Petaluma where 43-year-old Tami Wilson was killed in October when she lost control of her pick-up.

At least four memorials have been hauled away since June, including three in and near Petaluma, and a fourth in Forestville.

The removals rekindle a debate whether the personal items left behind by loved ones are appropriate expressions of grief, or maudlin, perhaps even dangerous, eyesores.

Even some victims’ families are torn over the issue.

Hansen said her husband has begged her not to go to the spot where the couple’s daughter died because doing so always unhinges her.

She goes anyway.

“I told my husband that’s where she died. That’s where her soul left her body,” Hansen said.

After discovering the crosses gone in June, Hansen said she drove to city offices and the police department to see if anyone might know what happened to them. The crosses were on city property, but Hansen said she was told that nobody knew who had taken them.

Officials with Caltrans and the CHP said their employees were not responsible for the removal of memorials on state property, even though the items violate state law.

“They’re technically forbidden, but we try to work with families and let those be maintained by families as long as it’s not imposing on any one else’s safety,” said Michelle Squyer with Caltrans.

Besides safety concerns, some view the memorials as unwanted intrusions into their daily lives.

“Though we can sympathize with the bereaved families who place them there, we must ask these survivors to empathize with those of us who find roadside markers in poor taste, especially the ones that stretch beyond the Zen of simplicity into the din of excess, sporting fences and plastic flowers and personal belongings — all of which bear unsettling resemblances to cemetery plots,” Sebastopol resident David Evans wrote in a letter to the editor in February.

As an alternative, the state — for a $1,000 fee — offers a Victim Memorial Sign Program for those who are killed by a driver who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.