Roadside Memorials-Some Australian Examples

By Smith, Robert James | Folklore, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Roadside Memorials-Some Australian Examples


Smith, Robert James, Folklore


On Sunday 6 October 1998, during a holiday long weekend in New South Wales (N.S.W.), Australia, at around 2 p.m., beside the busy Pacific Highway south of Kempsey, without a building in sight in any direction, a family group was to be seen approaching a small white cross. The adults seemed to be late thirties to early forties, with the three children, aged from around five to twelve years. Flowers were already on the memorial and, after the group had paused, the youngest child was coaxed forward to place there the small wreath she was carrying.

As with examples of commemoration detailed in recent issues of Folklore, (Walter 1996, 106; Monger 1997), here is evidence of a place that was rich with significance and worthy of reverential behaviour for this group. Memorial crosses are often seen along Australian roadsides, thus following the practice previously described for other countries. Yet it is rare to know of the actual details prompting the commemoration, and rarer still to see any people actually at the sites. The common characteristics of this private and increasingly important folk custom are difficult to determine. The available evidence provides only the barest outlines of the practice; and when such mourners are encountered, the passer-by must avoid intruding upon their grief. A useful method of investigation in this subject is the comparative approach, drawing upon examples from many situations, and to this end I offer the following observations from northern New South Wales.

The largely European experiences detailed by George Monger reflect a land with many cultural echoes already inherent in specific sites. Australia's more mobile population and a lower density of occupation have led to only slight practice of such site commemoration. Even with the large-scale European migration into Australia of the last fifty years, elaborate wayside memorials--as in the Greek practice, for example--is rare on this side of the world (none in northern N.S.W.).

An Australian study recently undertaken in Newcastle N.S.W. provides much useful data and pause for thought. K.V. Hartig and K.M. Dunn (1998) compared official records of all motor fatalities over a five-year period with remaining memorialisation sites, then undertook interviews with drivers, the bereaved and local residents. Their major finding was a strong gender link:

   [Roadside memorials] function as conservative memorials of youth machismo;
   of heroic aggression, disregard for safety and egocentrism (Hartig and Dunn
   1998, 5).

Their interviews reported that most drivers--with the particular exception of older males--slowed down as they passed these sites. While much of the descriptive material in Hartvig and Dunn's report accorded with my own northern N.S.W. experience (sizes of crosses 30cms--1m, always white with black lettering), some of their observations did not. For example, I found no evidence of the use of photographs and long messages. Furthermore, their analysis did not ring true for my region. The study seemed to be relevant mainly to a closely settled urban area--where the sites were not only readily identifiable but perhaps an unavoidable sight in daily travel to work or shopping. Such is not the case in rural Australia. Their study therefore prompted me to a renewed local observation and analysis.

The north of the state is dominated by two highways. The Pacific Highway and the New England Highway link Sydney to Brisbane, with the New England taking a longer, inland route. Though the traffic volume, particularly on the Pacific Highway, is similar to that on British motorways, it still seems essentially a country road, mostly of only two lanes. The sides of the roads are readily accessible to motorists who need to stop, but this is rarely done. Housing is sparse, and there is a large amount of through-traffic. For over ten years there has been a concerted public campaign to get the Pacific Highway upgraded. …

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