What You Need To Know About Roadside Memorials

You may have wondered why there are white crosses, flowers, wreaths, signs, and other items formed into a shrine alongside a highway or residential road. These are called roadside memorials, and there are many ways to create, maintain, and decorate them in a way that will bring some comfort to those who lost loved ones. They also serve as a safety warning to drivers on the road.

What Is A Roadside Memorial?

Roadside memorial markers are typically ways to memorialize someone who passed away from a motor vehicle accident at the exact or surrounding location where the death took place. 

Different from a gravesite, the roadside memorial honors the deceased in a way that marks where they passed away, and does not mark the location of where a body is buried. In other words, these memorials are meant to represent the place of one’s final moments of life. 

These memorials come in many shapes, sizes, and decorations. The memorials all depend on the deceased’s loved ones' preferences on how they wish to remember someone close to them. This could be in the form of flowers, memorial signs, memorial crosses, or anything else.

Often the family of the deceased will engrave the dead’s name or photo onto the memorial site or use various religious symbols to represent their faith. Whether traditional or unique, roadside markers of motor vehicle accidents are reminders of the lives at stake when drivers take the wheel.

A Tragic Look At Death On The Highway

Before diving into the ins and outs of roadside memorials, it’s important to discuss why so many families have tragically lost their loved ones to motor vehicle accidents. Approximately 1.25 million people are victims of motor vehicle death each year. That means that every single day, an average of 3,200 people die from these horrific events. 

As you will read further in this article, one of the main reasons for roadside memorials, aside from memorializing a loved one, is to promote driver and motorcyclist safety. They often serve as a reminder to stay safe on the roads. However, many critics believe that they can also lead to more accidents due to distracting features. Jump to the pros and cons of roadside memorials for a closer look at these arguments.

The History Behind Roadside Memorials

Have you ever wondered the origin story behind these markers? You may have seen them throughout the country, but roadside memorials hold special roots in the southwestern United States.


These shrines date back more than two hundred years ago. The markers that honored the deceased began with little white crosses placed in the ground.

Years ago, these tiny white crosses would act as a guide between a church and a graveyard. They led the funeral procession and were an ingrained component of the ceremony’s religious decor. The crosses, or, “descansos,” marked a pathway for those who were mourning to pray and honor the dead. 


The small white crosses as a funeral procession grew into what we recognize today. Nowadays, mourning families will place crosses and other memorial decorations at or surrounding the area of the accident.

Different cultures including many Latino and Indigenous influences helped to shape these roadside shrines into various interpretations of roadside memorial displays across the country and around the globe.

Why Do People Keep Roadside Memorials?

Typically, roadside markers of motor vehicle accidents are placed to represent the last place someone was alive, or the location that led to their death. For those who are spiritual, it’s considered the location where their spirit has moved on, or in other words, where someone took their last breath. Bodies are not buried at the location of these markers, but they act as a shrine to the deceased and also as a warning to motorists to drive cautiously.

Here are the various reasons why many build roadside memorials when a loved one dies from a motor vehicle accident:


It’s a way to honor someone they loved in a public manner, allowing friends and family to contribute to the display with unique items and thoughtful memories. 


It’s an expression of love and can be an integral component of someone’s process of mourning. 


It serves as a cautionary message to motorcyclists and drivers to drive sober and safely. 


It helps to remind people walking across an intersection or pulled over alongside a highway to be extremely vigilant of cars that may not pay close attention to them.


It could support a culture of vehicle safety among drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. 


Whether one has been driving for decades or just received their driver’s license, roadside memorials are reminders to all that lives are always on the line when on the road. 

Do Laws On Roadside Memorials Differ From State To State?

The short answer is yes, they do. When it comes to roadside memorials, there are numerous rules and regulations that should be considered depending on where you live. Usually, rules for roadside memorials differ from state to state.

However, just because one state permits these markers does not mean that your city or other municipality does not hold specific ordinances surrounding them. These rules may vary in the following ways (state or local government):

Memorial display size limitations:  Since roadside memorials may block drivers’ views on the road, your local or state government may enforce laws that prohibit bigger memorials. 

Permit or registry requirements:  In order to keep track of roadside memorials throughout the state, local authorities may require you to register your display. This could include a fee for maintenance or not, depending on where you live. 

Length of time the memorial may be displayed:  Many memorials require a lot of maintenance. If someone doesn’t continue to take care of the display, or if the authorities are in charge of it, you may be limited in how long you can keep your memorial on the roadside. 

Environmental regulations:  Another factor considered in relation to maintenance is the environment. Some memorials may cause litter, or invasive plant species to settle in the soil.  

Safety considerations:  Pedestrian and driver safety is typically prioritized when it comes to setting laws for roadside memorials. For instance, can someone easily walk by the tribute without walking into the road? Are drivers blocked by its view? 

Maintenance considerations:  If the government needs to pay someone to maintain a memorial, cost is a big factor.


Some individuals may be wondering why states would restrict or ban families from mourning their loved ones in this public way. But the truth is that roadside memorials are quite controversial, and there are many reasons why certain regions enforce these rules and regulations.

Here are some of the most common reasons why these laws exist:

Environmental harm: Ecosystems are put at risk when non native plants are placed at roadside memorials. This and other factors like littering are reasons why these types of tributes to the dead are often regulated. 

Cost of clean up and maintenance: Especially in states who offer permanent roadside memorials, the cost of maintenance is considered in these laws. 

Motor vehicle distractions and accidents: Big signs or distracting colors could cause even more accidents when incorporated into a roadside memorial. Therefore, safety is a major determining factor in these regulations. 

Pedestrian safety for those putting together the tribute or maintaining it over time: Building roadside memorials can be dangerous. They often occur at windy roads and busy intersections, placing those building and maintaining the memorial at risk. 

Pedestrian safety for those walking by as drivers are distracted: When drivers are distracted, pedestrians are at risk when walking across the street or even on the sidewalk. 

Private property laws: If the roadside memorial is on private property, you must consider that the owners may prefer you set it up elsewhere. 

Public property laws: Existing public property laws might come into play when determining rules for roadside memorials. For example, there may be littering fines already in place and roadside memorials may need to be an exception. 


First, begin with your state. Click here to find information on each state’s regulations regarding roadside memorials. Alternatively, you may directly call or visit your state’s department of transportation or highway department. Next, be sure to check with your city laws in case they differ from your overall state laws. The last thing you want to happen is to plan a memorial just to find out that it’s not permitted.

What Are The General Rules That Roadside Memorials Must Follow?

Remember to always research your region’s rules and regulations regarding roadside memorials before you contribute to or build one yourself. That said, there are some general guidelines that are good to know when going through the process of designing one.

These are usually incorporated into the law in locations where roadside tributes are legal. Here are some important factors to consider while planning:


West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and other states that permit roadside memorials take safety into account when passing, updating, and enforcing the law. Be sure that your shrine’s intention is to do good and not to do harm by being too distracting or offensive.

The following might be too distracting for drivers passing by the roadside memorial:

  • Giant signs
  • Neon colors
  • Many large balloons
  • Oversized wreaths
  • Photos or lettering that some may find offensive
  • Any other decoration that is considerable in its size


Several states have online registries of roadside memorials that are required to keep track of these markings. Do your best to find out each rule one must follow for your memorial. If you don’t know the answer to whether or not you need a permit, ask your local department of transportation.

The golden rule is to check first, then plan. It’s already a devastating time to navigate. Having authorities take down a roadside memorial is the last thing one needs when mourning. 

If the tribute is set to be placed on private property, consider the owners. More likely than not, owners may let you place a memorial on their land. Be courteous and do not leave litter, just as you would be cautious of what you leave behind on public land. 


It’s important to handle a roadside memorial with care. Not only do many believe the sacred and careful upkeep helps honor the dead, but it also is important to maintain the surrounding environment for the general population. Especially if your shrine contains non biodegradable decorations such as balloons, ribbons, or photos, be sure to clean up any leftover litter. 

Keep in mind that the weather will vary depending on the season. You may think you’ve planned an eco friendly display, but if the wind or rain begins to affect it, there may be litter miles away that comes from your creation. Memorial maintenance is a big reason why many decorators choose eco friendly items. Flowers for instance are natural and when planted, there is no need to clean up. 

Depending on your area, your local government may provide assistance or even take over the upkeep of a roadside memorial. This is a common practice within states that permit permanent roadside memorial signs. Check with the local authorities to see if you can receive help in maintenance. 


Rules surrounding the timeline of memorials are both written and unwritten. Some areas may enforce a strict period of time for any road marker to be maintained.

Other authorities may abide by an unspoken etiquette that the memorial may be up for a short period of time, typically no more than thirty days, even if they are not usually permitted. 

This is usually due to the immense grief and emotional component of these tragic accidents. Even when they must be removed by authorities, there will often be a note left behind as to the reason for removal. 

Decorating Ideas For Roadside Memorials

Decorating roadside memorials can come in many forms. Some states and cities have limited what grieving families can and cannot place for their motor vehicle death markers. Aside from rules regarding these memorials, there are numerous possibilities one can capture to honor someone they loved.

Roadside tributes may look different depending on the particular way a family member or close friend feels connected with the deceased. No matter how you do it, as long as it may bring even the slightest bit of comfort, it may be worth the effort. Here are some ideas to decorate a lovely roadside memorial:


Many grieving families turn to faith in the most challenging times in their lives. That’s often why you may see spiritual symbols as the central markers for roadside memorials. Memorial crosses are the most commonly seen across the United States. You may also see the Star of David or a Crescent Moon. 

Roadside memorials originated from the use of “descanso,” or little white crosses. These now usually represent an unexpected tragedy such as a fatal motor vehicle accident. You can buy crosses or make your own with wood or vinyl. 


Another beautiful and environmentally friendly way to embellish a roadside memorial is by incorporating nature into its central decor. You may use flowers in the shape of wreaths, or, if permitted, plant the deceased’s favorite blooming foliage as a way to honor them after they’ve passed away.


Pictures of loved ones are often seen within the decor of a roadside memorial. There are many ways to incorporate a beautiful portrait of the deceased. For example, this Remembrance Memorial Portrait holds the photo of the deceased encased around a lovely black frame. Another idea is to select this textured and high quality Forever Memorial Portrait to place at the location.

You may also decide to decorate a motor vehicle death memorial by incorporating a photo wall. Place a small pushpin board near your memorial centerpiece. If you want to encourage others to add their own photos, provide pushpins and a note with permission.

Depending on the location, it may be safer to incorporate framed photos, given that push pins may end up in the middle of a road due to high winds and other inclement weather. 


Memorial signs can be homemade, store bought, or personalized. Some ideas to place on a memorial sign include:

  • The deceased’s name
  • Significant dates such as the time of death or age of the deceased
  • Inspirational quotes that remind you of your loved one or that encompass their spirit
  • Cautionary language to warn motorists of the dangers of reckless driving and to look out for drunk drivers
  • Bible verses

Other roadside memorial signs may be provided by the government. Some states allow the family of the deceased to apply for a permanent roadside memorial. This could include caution signs along with the deceased’s name. 


In any time of grief, writing letters to deceased loved ones is an encouraged way to cope. Letters may be incorporated into a roadside marker in order to further personalize a memorial. 

You can also leave space to place notes for the family or close friends to help bring them comfort in knowing the deceased was loved dearly. Think about what you would say at a funeral or memorial ceremony. Letters could incorporate funny stories, memories, or lessons learned from the deceased. 


Larger decorations like balloons attached to colorful ribbons are also a common feature of motor vehicle death memorials. Balloon displays mimic a celebration of life, and a well-thought-out presentation may bring more comfort to those honoring their loved ones.

They have the potential to create stunning memorials, but proceed with caution if you choose this route. Many critics argue that too large of a balloon display can cause unsafe driving conditions. Additionally, if balloons are released, they could cause severe harm to the environment. If left to deflate and never get thrown away, balloons could cause unnecessary litter.


Teddy bears and other toys are popular decorations for roadside memorials. This is especially the case for adolescent victims of motor vehicle accidents.


Purchase pinwheels to add movement and color to a motor vehicle memorial site. If you’re looking for a DIY project to incorporate children, check out this kid friendly pinwheel tutorial here. Family activities like crafts may act as an essential distraction during a tumultuous time.


Placing flags surrounding a roadside memorial is a meaningful way to honor a loved one. Consider flags of one’s nationality, identity, or another significant symbol.

Note there is etiquette to how one handles and cares for some flags. Even if they are considerably smaller than a large flag, it is important to think about these rules. Here you can find specific etiquette for small American flags. 


Lighting ceremonies as memorials are a significant aspect of mourning that many grieving individuals embrace when faced with tragedy. Traditionally, lit candles are used.

However, there are many safe alternatives such as LED candles or lanterns to use instead. Especially in a more fire susceptible environment, consider these options instead. Another idea is to place a note for mourners to please not light up their candle with real fire, or to be sure it’s blown out before leaving.


Jewelry for remembrance is a meaningful symbol of love. Wear it as you build a roadside memorial, or even leave a beautiful piece of jewelry alongside the shrine until you wish to wear it again.

There are many customizable options to browse through. This Stainless Textured Round Color Photo Pendant or Large Dog Tag Photo Engraved Gold Plated Over Stainless Keepsake are wonderful representations of loved ones that keep memories alive and provide comfort during heartbreaking moments.


For a more personal tribute to the deceased, consider one of the many homemade roadside memorial signs. You can use a large rock or wood sign to paint your own memorial feature. 


There are many stores, whether online or in person, that make gorgeous ceramic angels. These can become central figures in a roadside memorial. If you’re looking for a unique and engraved ceramic angel and need help finding the best one for you, take a look at Etsy. 

Another idea to incorporate these figurines into the roadside memorial is by painting one of your own. It’s another great way to involve creative types or children in making the shrine. You can purchase all white ceramic angels to do this project. 


Many people who maintain roadside shrines prefer to switch up the decor every once in a while. This includes seasonal features such as Christmas or fall themed items. If your state permits it, Spring is a lovely season for blooming flowers to maintain.

Who Maintains A Roadside Memorial?

When a loved one dies in a tragic motor vehicle accident, many turn to roadside memorials as a way to honor the deceased. But who is responsible for the tribute’s upkeep? This all depends on a few things. However, the general rule is that family and close friends of the dead are the ones to maintain the roadmark.

Some roadside memorials attract a large number of friends and family of the deceased. If there are instructions or suggestions left on the site, you should feel free to contribute or help with the upkeep. If there are none and you’re not close friends or family, thoughts, prayers, or self reminders of safe driving tactics are best.


If you’re unable to continue maintenance for a roadside death marker, there may be some options to help:

  • If you live in a region where one may purchase a memorial sign, authorities will most likely tend to its care over time. 
  • Asking neighbors, friends, or family is always a good idea. 
  • Hire a trustworthy youth to water surrounding plants when needed.
  • Befriend others in grief groups and see what they suggest.

Pros & Cons Of A Roadside Memorial

If you ask several people their thoughts on roadside memorials, you will most likely receive a plethora of answers. Some individuals are adamantly opposed to these roadside death markers. Others truly believe they help drivers stay safe. There are many pros and cons to roadside memorials. Read on to explore the various arguments and considerations. 


There are many positive connotations of death markers on the highway or at busy intersections. Here are the most common pros you may come across:

Honoring A Death At It's Location

Memorials are meant to honor the deceased and pay respect to their memory. When done alongside the road at which a death took place adds a special element to the mourning process. Taking the time to set up a lovely assortment of wreaths, candles, and flowers shows the public how loved and cherished someone was when they were living.

Help Families With Grieving

Death markers along the road can be an integral aspect of the grieving process. It can help with healing, be used as something to do when one feels completely lost, and honor someone who deserves to be represented in the best possible way. 

Safety Reminder

One of the reasons why many prefer to allow roadside memorials is due to the belief that it may help lower the number of car accidents at the site. The idea is that when drivers pass by the memorial, they will be reminded of the urgent need for defensive and completely sober driving. Aside from potentially saving lives, the thought that a death could be avoided can assist those who are mourning. A roadside memorial could turn a horrific death into a legacy of safety.

Raise Awareness

Roadside memorials raise awareness of the importance of driver safety. Many believe that for this reason alone, they should be permitted in an effort to improve a safer driving culture. 

Drunk driving and reckless driving is never safe. The more people drink, the worse their judgement becomes. Judgement is impaired even if someone is lightly buzzed. The harsh truth is that even if someone is driving safely, there are countless parts of the United States that contain dangerous road conditions. If you add on inclement weather, driving becomes even more dangerous.


Critics have a lot to say when it comes to roadside memorials. Take a look at some of the most common reasons why people are against these death markers. 

Potential Distractions

Many view roadside memorials as distractions to motorists. When drivers move their attention to something other than the road or their driving, they may cause an accident. Particularly when it comes to death markers that are placed at tricky intersections or dangerous winding highways, many argue that the memorials actually increase the danger for those on the road or pedestrians. 

Besides those passing by a shrine, there are many people who help maintain the display. When placed on the highway or other dangerous areas, people alongside the road could be placed in more danger than they would otherwise face. 

Big Memorials Block Views

When memorials are large, they can cause a greater distraction than smaller displays. Big memorial signs could block motorists’ vision and cause harm where the intention was to reduce it. 

The Controversy Of Public Grief

It’s known that everyone mourns in different ways. For one individual, a roadside memorial could be a helpful way to honor their loved one and challenge others to be safe in their memory. But for others, seeing death markers as they drive or pass by could strike a nerve or trigger an unpleasant memory. Perhaps they were affected by a tragic motor vehicle accident. The public aspect of roadside memorials has many arguing that grief should be private. 

Separation Of Church & State

Folks who do not share the same religion as the symbols on a roadside memorial, or those who firmly believe in the separation of church and state, will often object to these death markers. Roadside memorials have roots in Catholicism, but have now grown into common practices in American culture for anyone affected by motor vehicle tragedies. But when religious representations are permitted by the government on public property, certain individuals could be offended by the practice.

Environmental Harm

Litter, invasive plant species, and other environmental hazards are often consequences of roadside memorials. These issues can have long and lasting impacts on the surrounding ecological community and public health. 

What Options Do I Have Other Than A Roadside Memorial?

If you’ve read through the pros and cons of roadside death markers and decided to seek alternatives, there are many ways to honor loved ones who have died in this tragic and unexpected way. Or if your state does not permit these memorials, here are some ideas to consider:

  • Create the death marker that you prefer near someone’s grave instead of their location of death. Note that this may require you to review rules and regulations of graveyards and cemeteries, though most allow this practice. 
  • Use the money you would spend on decorations for a roadside memorial on a donation to organizations fighting for better motor vehicle safety. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving are dedicated to this cause and can always use additional funds to pressure politicians for safer roads and to further raise awareness among the public.   If you cannot donate money, you may donate your time to an organization pushing for safer roads. 
  • Invest in a memorial keepsake jewelry item that will connect you and your loved one. For photo engraved items, review 10 Tips To Help Create The Perfect Photo Jewelry Keepsake. Another idea to bring comfort during such a painful time is by turning ashes into jewelry. If you’re looking for answers regarding cremation jewelry, take a look at Cremation Jewelry FAQs.
  • Create a community garden memorial instead of a roadside death marker. This is still a public way to share the memory of a loved one while also avoiding potential driving distractions. You can get creative and plant the deceased’s favorite fruits, vegetables, and flowers in honor of their memory. 
  • Instead of building a temporary display alongside the highway, consider creating a digital memorial that will last forever. Online memorials are becoming increasingly popular, and generate a similar space for grieving.

Roadside Memorial Frequently Asked Questions

What are the rules for roadside memorials?

The rules for roadside memorials vary state by state. Here you may find information on each state’s regulations you must follow. If you need additional information, you can call or visit your state’s department of transportation. Keep in mind city ordinances may differ from state law. 

Generally speaking, driver safety, permits, maintenance, timelines, and environmental damage are key factors that determine the rules regarding roadside memorials.

Where can I buy a roadside memorial cross?

Large retailers to small businesses are options when it comes to finding a memorial cross to purchase. Amazon has many options for those looking online. If you prefer to support local or small businesses, consider browsing through Etsy for customizable crosses. You will likely find local stores carrying crosses as well. Remember that there are plenty of options out there, including solar powered light crosses, colorful crosses, and battery operated light up crosses. 

What does a cross on the side of the road mean?

A cross on the side of the road typically means that someone passed away from a motor vehicle accident at or around that location. You will find these all across the United States, but the idea of placing a memorial alongside the road dates back over two hundred years in the American Southwest. The memorial cross represents their final place of life.

How can I make my own roadside memorial?

Before getting started on your own roadside memorial, be sure to do your research. Check out if your state permits these markers and if so, what the rules surrounding the memorial are. Aside from the legalities surrounding roadside memorials, there are no hard and fast rules on what one should and should not create for a display.

Crosses are commonly found at these sites. You can DIY a memorial cross by following this step by step tutorial here. Or, simply buy one at the store or online. Other ideas include:

  • Other religious symbols
  • Plants, flowers, and wreaths
  • Laminated or framed pictures of the deceased
  • Decorated signs with the deceased’s name, significant dates, or other wording
  • Written letters to the deceased or their loved ones
  • Balloons and ribbons
  • Stuffed animals
  • Decorative pinwheels
  • Flags 
  • Candles, LED candles, or lanterns
  • Remembrance jewelry 

If I was just an acquaintance of the deceased, can I leave something at the roadside memorial?

Unless otherwise specified from the family directly or by instructions on the shrine site, leave a memorial be. Typically roadside memorials are maintained by the family. It is common to allow many close friends and even acquaintances to contribute. Just be sure to respect the family’s wishes if they do not want anyone leaving items at the site. 

If you really wish to provide a bereavement gift for the family of a roadside accident victim, there are many options. For inspiration, take a look at the Top 25 Grieving Gifts. 

Can I plant grass around the roadside memorial?

Before planting anything alongside a death marker on the road, be sure to research whether or not it’s permitted on public land. If it’s on private land, the owners may prefer you not to plant.

How long can a roadside memorial be left?

Temporary roadside memorials can be left from as little as under one month to over a year. Many factors are considered while determining the length of time. This may be outlined by your local government, or simply determined by the family and close friends of the deceased. 

There are also permanent roadside memorial options in some states. If your state permits it, you can register and purchase a permanent sign in the name of your loved one that could help prevent more tragedies behind the wheel. 

Is a roadside memorial legal in my state?

Find out if your state permits roadside memorials by clicking here.  Alternatively, you may directly call or visit your state’s department of transportation or highway department. Remember to also check relevant local ordinances as they may differ from your overall state laws.

Why are there white crosses along the highway?

Crosses along the highway symbolize death by a motor vehicle accident. You will find these all across the United States, but the idea of placing a memorial alongside the road dates back over two hundred years in the American Southwest. The memorial cross represents someone’s final moments of life. 

Why are there white bikes along the road?

These are referred to as “ghost bikes,” which usually represent an accident between a biker and a car. For the past twenty years, ghost bikes have increased in popularity to raise awareness about fatal cyclist accidents.

By The Roadside: Remembering A Loved One

When tragedy hits you, it seems like there is no hope. Roadside memorials have helped mourning families and friends for years to navigate their grief.

Whether you agree with critics who advocate for potentially safer alternatives to these death markers or not, one thing remains clear. Lives are always at stake when behind the wheel.

June 18, 2021 by Frances Kay