COLUMBIA -- The new DOT signs to honor loved ones killed on South Carolina roadways aren't expected to significantly cut back on the number of homemade memorials, two College of Charleston sociologists said Thursday.
George Dickinson and Heath Hoffmann said roadside memorials often are highly individual expressions of grief that Americans are using more and more as part of the mourning process. The sociologists co-authored a study on the topic that appeared last month in the British scholarly journal "Mortality."
Hoffmann said people often put together the memorials with items that were important to their loved one. He's seen part of broken bumper with a Pink Floyd T-shirt draped over it in remembrance of a victim.
"The state sign looks really pretty and nice, but it's not personal," he said. "It's not uncommon for people to leave a carton of cigarettes and pour a beer on the spot or take a shot of whiskey.
"They're such a personal expression of their grief and loss."
The state Department of Transportation will offer roadside memorial plaques for $250 to honor loved ones killed in traffic collisions. Applications will be accepted beginning Aug. 9.
Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse said he hopes the new signs will "organically" drop the number roadside memorials. He said loved ones risk their own lives when they put up the homemade memorials and that some memorials end up becoming a safety hazard to drivers. The department's policy has been to leave the memorials alone unless they pose a risk to drivers.
South Carolina will join about a dozen other states that offer the roadside markers, including Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. The cost ranges from $25 in Florida to $1,000 in California and Colorado.
In all, 23 states have policies on the matter, including 11 that have green memorials where trees or gardens are planted in remembrance of a lost loved one.
Dickinson said some argue that the homemade memorials distract drivers, but for others, like himself, the individual memorials send a signal to be cautious.
"It does remind me that someone died on that spot and I need to be careful," Dickinson said. Drivers might be more likely to ignore the state signs because they will be uniform.
The frequency with which Americans are putting up the homemade memorials illustrates a shift in cultural mourning, Dickinson said. To some, the place where their loved one died -- where they believe the soul left the body -- is more sacred than a cemetery, he said.
Markers for the dead date back to prehistoric traders and can be traced to England beginning in 1290, according to Dickinson and Hoffmann. In the United States, the roadside marker phenomenon is thought to have originated in the Southwest, reflecting Hispanic customs, and only became popular in the last 15 years.
Crosses are the most common feature in roadside memorials, and markers typically are erected for the sudden and violent death of a younger person.
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