A simple cross. Each spar a length of white PVC pipe a couple feet long with the ends capped and sealed. There is one heavily-sun-bleached Christmas wreath attached to the piece and another lays in the grass just in front. Also at the scene is a small, hand-painted, ceramic angel. Peel-and-stick letters on three ends of the pipe describe only the most basic details: Mark, 66-02.Years ago, the makeshift memorial was hammered into the grass of a wide berm along Route 837 in West Elizabeth. We pass the cross on every trip down to Donora and Monessen, so it’s become a kind of mile marker in this industrial stretch that includes a number of small factory buildings along with large operations for Eastman Chemical Resins and Marathon Petroleum. The enormous, stories-tall gas reservoirs of the latter form an imposing backdrop to the very human-scaled and personally-tended roadside cross put up for the departed.
Memorial Day means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It was created to honor those men and women who’ve died in military service for the country and has morphed into the great long weekend of igniting propane under chicken thighs after deeply-discounted blowout sales at department stores and car dealerships.
While those interpretations of the holiday are all valid, The Orbit finds a profound depth in the very personal and extremely individual work of making and tending these unique tributes that seem to pop up just about anywhere.
There’s a lot we don’t know…and will never know just by randomly passing a roadside cross with someone’s first name. Somewhere out there–for any accident that’s resulted in fatality–there must exist the blunt facts of a police record or newspaper obituary. But even with the clues provided–a firefighter’s helmet, a stone painted with the Harley-Davidson logo, an unexpected location along the bicycle trail–the memorials generate more questions than they answer.
Whatever happened to Mark, Ryan, Jordan, or any of the others remembered in these roadside crosses, it probably wasn’t a happy ending. Their ages–from late teens to mid-thirties–and placement of the crosses (mainly) along busy roadways suggest unexpected, unnatural deaths. These seem likely to be car crash-related, but of course those details are part of what remain a mystery.
The most important unknown, for the vast majority of us, is the character of these people whose lives were cut short on the two-lane blacktop. They were clearly loved and are missed with a reverence we should all be so lucky to have. The Orbit spends a lot of time in the graveyard; very few marble headstones get the loving upkeep of some of these lashed-to-a-guardrail wooden crosses.
Back to that anonymous roadside in West Elizabeth–graveled and dusty, noisy with truck traffic, and surrounded by the petrochemical industry. It has none of the solemn peace, flowering dogwoods, frolicking deer, or generations-old sculpted beauty of Allegheny or Union Dale Cemeteries. It offers neither the great cross-river views of St. John’s and Loretto nor the rock star lineup at Homewood.
But…this is where it happened. And for the people who loved Mark and Vincent, Ryan and Jordan, these lonely stretches of ex-urban highway seem to have become hallowed ground in a way that may never seem completely appropriate for more pristine, formal burial grounds.
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Roadside crosses, though not obviously memorials, showed up in a couple other places on our travels. These anonymous acts of faith–a metal cross on steel girder (above) and old world painted wood cross on utility pole (below) come with even less to go on.
Do they remember a specific traffic fatality like the more personalized examples above? Or do these crosses have nothing to do with an individual or specific intersection and just represent a quiet-but-public expression of religious belief?
There’s a couple more here, too. This loving, heart-shaped and patio-sized tribute to “mom / grandma / friend” on Route 51 is hard to suss out. Did grandma pass away at this stretch of highway [it’s as likely as anywhere] or did the family just decide to landscape their elaborate memorial in a naked roadside where the greater Coraopolis/Moon Township commuter community could pay their respects? Who knows!
Finally, the one that really hits home. We wrote a while back about the ghost bicycle for Susan Hicks in central Oakland and went into a whole spiel about putting our faith in robots. We’ve been fortunate enough that there haven’t been too many other cycling fatalities in the city since then.
One painful exception is Dennis Flanagan, a cyclist who was killed riding on a fast-moving stretch of West Carson Street in 2016. For the ghost bicycle left to mark the spot of Flanagan’s fatal accident, the teddy bears have faded, plastic flowers droop, gears and chain are rusty. But the painted-white bicycle remains, locked to a street sign faithfully reminding passers-by that Dennis Flanagan was here and we all need to look out for each other. That’s what Memorial Day means to me.