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The crosses they bear

Memorials dot roads around the county, providing comfort to survivors but sometimes provoking discord among passers-by.

By JACKIE RIPLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


KEYSTONE -- There are few things in life, not even two jobs and a family, that can keep Carolyn Sims from finding time to tend to a labor of love.

The proof of her devotion is clear, especially to anyone who regularly negotiates the treacherous curves of Gunn Highway in northwest Hillsborough County.

The object of her devotion? A meticulously maintained roadside cross that bears the name Dreama Sims and marks the spot where her daughter died in a traffic accident three years ago.

"I try to keep it clean from trash, and I keep flowers out there," Sims said. "Sometimes I go before I go to work, take the weed-eater around it and the next day I go by there and rake it."

It was a crisp December morning when Dreama Di-Ann Sims died. She was 18 and on her way to work. Headed south on Gunn, the Odessa teen for some reason swerved her green Mustang into the northbound lane as she neared N Mobley Road. She collided with a van.

"I guess basically I do it because that's where she died," Carolyn Sims said. "I know they pronounced her dead at the hospital," but the scene of the accident "is where you leave your spirit. That's where she was last. I can go there and pay my respects and talk to her."

Carolyn Sims is not alone in her grief, nor in her expression of it. Roadside crosses similar to the one honoring Dreama Sims are proliferating along the nation's highways, from as far as New Mexico to the nearby flat and sandy soil of Florida.

"I believe that the middle class has gone from being close-lipped and unemotional to seeing that there is an enormous human advantage in acknowledging, publicly, sorts of things we might earlier have denied," said Sam Larcombe, a scholar from Santa Fe, N.M., who has studied roadside memorials for decades. "We're more worldly and more acquainted with the way people around the world behave."

* * *

We've all seen them, grim reminders of a journey -- and a life -- cut short. They are public reminders of private grief, usually crosses, and made of everything from wood to PVC. They are as varied as the people who put them there, are sometimes bare, sometimes elaborate, but always to the point.

"They bear witness to something terribly painful," Larcombe said. "We're saying something terrible happened here."

Archetypical in their imagery, these roadside reminders illustrate "an impulse that might not be religious but much deeper," Larcombe said.

A cross is a crossing, explains Larcombe. The horizontal arm is the course of our lives, the vertical cross is that sudden ending, an ending some believe goes upward and outward.

"It's very deep and complex," Larcombe said. "It's a complicated need to celebrate life and death and to grieve, and is as important as any other kind of popular expression in the 20th century."

Roadside crosses are sometimes draped with crucifixes and rosary beads, surrounded by votive candles and silk flowers, and decorated with personal memorabilia from photographs to high school graduation tassels. Sometimes they are plain, unvarnished lumber, with a name, lovingly etched.

Simple or baroque, these memorials have their roots in the Hispanic and Indian cultures of the Southwest where, before the advent of automobiles, pallbearers would place markers, or descansos on their trek to the cemetery, marking the spots where they laid the casket down to rest.

From those archaic descansos evolved today's roadside and median memorabilia. They might be crudely constructed or elaborately crafted, but their message is clear.

"I brought you some light," reads one such message inscribed on a cross at the corner of Gunn and Henderson Road, marking the spot where Alvin Burgos lost his life last February. "I still miss you always."

Burgos, like Sims, was 18 when he died on Gunn Highway. For Burgos, it was a motorcycle accident at the corner of Gunn and Henderson, a relatively straight stretch of road near the Veterans Expressway. Burgos' father said a car pulled in front of his son's motorcycle as he made the turn onto Henderson.

"Putting the cross out there was a bit of closure for me," said Burgos' best friend, Guy Fino. "It really helped me get through a rough time."

Fino said many of Burgos' friends still visit the site, a pilgrimage that helps them remember the Carrollwood teen, formerly a member of a Christian rap group, who made it his business to make sure everyone was having a good time.

"We don't feel he's forgotten by any means." Fino said. "There's not a day I don't remember."

* * *

Roadside memorials also serve to heal.

"It was hard at first," said Mike Lavin who daily passes a cross on Gunn Highway near State Road 54, put there to mark the spot where his son Kevin died five years ago. "Then it became almost like you're saying hello during the day."

Kevin was killed just hours before his 15th birthday party. His mother was on the way home with the birthday cake and Kevin, who had just finished mowing the yard before his birthday party, took off on his bicycle to get a cold drink from a nearby convenience store. On the way home, Kevin darted into the path of a pickup truck.

"A lot of his friends drop off flowers occasionally, once in awhile a poem or a prayer," Lavin said. "It's real sweet. I don't think you're going to forget Kevin."

People generally do not want to forget an accident victim. And that is why the crosses are so prevalent, said William D. Anton, director of the counseling center for the University of South Florida. "They want to be continually reminded that the person they love died here. It becomes a kind of icon, a little sanctuary and develops almost a religious significance."

They also serve as reminders of the fragility of life, said Anton, who frequents Van Dyke Road. He recalled seeing the cross marking the spot where Jana Snyder, a Gaither High School teen, died four years ago after losing control of her car and hitting a tree on Van Dyke.

"I was touched emotionally," Anton said. "I felt the sadness of what her parents must have felt of losing a daughter. I felt a sadness of what it must have been like to have died there."

* * *

Despite the comfort they bring survivors, they can be a source of discord. Some people view them as religious symbols that have no place on public property. Other times, they fuel discord within a family: Relatives might disagree over the design of the cross or where to place it.

Seeking to steer clear of such conflicts, Florida in 1997 banned homemade crosses on state roadways. Instead, state-sanctioned memorial markers are available to families who request them. Hillsborough County also is considering offering roadside markers in lieu of personalized monuments.

"We've been looking at that for some time, and we want to move ahead with the policy," said Mike McCarthy, manager of traffic services for the county.

The markers would be "less obtrusive, more secular and would be adequate to notice the loss but not to have any portion of it be offensive or of concern," McCarthy said. "We're trying to achieve a goal of helping families work through their intense grief without aggravating others."

For now, McCarthy said, county officials will not remove a roadside monument unless it creates a safety hazard. County landscape crews try to mow around the crosses. And, if anyone asks permission to erect them, the official answer is no.

Similarly, state officials tend to look the other way unless the roadside memorials "are really a safety hazard," said Marian Pscion, DOT spokeswoman. "We don't want to just yank them up. We contact the family and ask them if they would like a memorial marker."

Larcombe sees the crosses this way: "Look at the visual pollution along the roads, signs tempting us to buy things. These little crosses are of real humanity in an otherwise linear framework that offers practically nothing of comfort."

And "if we are uncomfortable with death," Lacombe said, "we cannot be comfortable with life."

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