Memories serve as memorials

By Ed Brock

Dominica Johnson does not need a flower-covered cross pushed into the dirt on the side of the road to remember where her husband died.

It's burned in her mind.

"It was hard for me to drive that way," Johnson said. "I can go there now, but?"

Her 40-year-old husband, Nathan, died Dec. 24, 2002 as he was pulling out of a parking space on Riverdale Road. A van driven by a woman with mental problems flew over an embankment and crashed on top of his car.

"It's sort of eerie when I do see one," Johnson said referring to the roadside memorials scattered along many roadways.

But for 24-year-old Matt Goodman of Hampton the three crosses planted in memory of his friend 23-year-old Justin Holmes are a welcome sight. They stand on the road near Artisans Body Shop on U.S. Highway 41-19 in Hampton where Goodman works and where the accident in which Holmes died occurred on Nov. 28, 2003.

"He died right here. I was working the day it happened," Goodman said.

Holmes' wife planted one of the crosses and his parents and friends planted the other two, Goodman said.

"It just reminds me about everything that happened and that everybody remembers him," Goodman said.

The memorials are usually crosses of some kind, some adorned with flowers and pictures and some plain. And they are a trend that clinical psychologist Judith Horton is seeing more and more of.

"I think having rituals or memorials are important to the grieving process," she said.

The emotional effect of the markers came clear to Horton when a classmate of her son's was killed in a car wreck.

"Every time I drove by I thought about that kid," Horton said.

Keeping the dead person's memory present in the minds of the living, that is one way the monuments help the grief stricken. But Horton said the grieving process is long and not everybody is ready to confront their loss at the same point.

"They may not want to see that and be reminded of what happened," Horton said. "But it may also give them the opportunity to have that moment of grief that will help them get through."

Trend may become legal

Illegal now, state legislators may make the placement of roadside memorials legal n in some instances. A part of Georgia House Bill 20 would allow the state to provide memorial signs to the family of DUI accident victims as part of victim compensation.

These signs would be 24 by 36 inches and feature a state map and the inscription "In Memory of (victim's name), DUI Victim" and the date of the accident. The law will standardize the process of the memorial trend, said Bob Dallas, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

"We certainly understand the grief of anybody who's lost somebody on the road," Dallas said. "The concern that we have is you don't want to create another hazard."

The signs should be made of break away material and placed in such a way that they do not distract drivers or impair visibility, Dallas said.

The Bill, if passed, would apply only to interstates and state highways and roads, and it is limited to accidents caused by drunk drivers. The fate of memorials for other kinds of accidents remains in the hands of the Georgia Department of Transportation. And right now they are illegal.

"State law treats everything in the roadway as an obstruction," said Bert Brantley, GDOT spokesman. "(The proposed DUI victim signs) will be really the only exception that we've had."

Memorials and other objects that are believed to pose an immediate threat to traffic are picked up immediately while others are scooped up during regular maintenance operations.

"We hang on to them for a while in case the family wants to come pick it up," Brantley said. "We don't have the choice not to pick them up."

Johnson has no intention of putting a memorial at the site of her husband's death. The Wendy's restaurant he had been visiting when he was killed is gone and the woman charged with vehicular homicide in the case was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent for treatment.

At the woman's sentencing Johnson offered her forgiveness to the woman who had made her a widow, but she still had a hard time explaining to her children why nobody stopped the accident from happening.

"It's never easy to lose your best friend," Johnson said. "He wasn't just another man who was killed."