News Release: Arts and Humanities, Research

Aug. 28,  2009

Crosses, Flowers, and Asphalt: Roadside Memorials in the U.S. South

News Article ImageShrine to a loved one who died on or near a Southern highway

From Emory University's Southern Spaces

Beginning in 2003, Atlanta photographer Tom Zarrilli traveled around the American Southeast documenting handmade memorials to departed loved ones found alongside highways. He discovered differences in not only the memorials, but in the attitudes that officials and the general public expressed toward these shrines that affected their composition and longevity. Southern Spaces, the Internet journal and scholarly forum about the U.S. South supported by Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, features a photo essay on his work.

Tom Zarrilli: In 2003, I began an odyssey through several states photographing makeshift memorials to departed loved ones found alongside the highways of the Southeast. In my documentation I sought to explore the significance of these roadside memorials to the meaning of the modern American South. In this photo essay, I have culled twenty photographs from my extensive collection. This accompanying text offers some thoughts about the significance of these shrines.

These handmade memorials were erected to honor loved ones who died near or on a highway in an unexpected and sudden manner. Although a few mark locations where individuals died as a result of roadside gunfire or attack, the majority of shrines commemorate loss of life in a motor vehicle crash or accident. One commemorates the loss of a beloved pet.

These memorials remind us of the enormous human cost of our national obsession with cars and car culture, an aspect of American life that has flourished in the U.S. South and in popular culture representations of southern culture. The images include romanticized moonshine runners evading the law, country singers meeting their fate in Cadillacs (the 1952 Cadillac Hank Williams died in attracts visitors in Mongomery, Alabama), dirt track racers defying death in stripped-down vehicles with high performance engines, the glitz and product promotion of modern day NASCAR, and the window-tinted, stretch-limo world of rap culture. Read the whole essay.

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