The Legality of Roadside Memorials

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 33,654 fatal motor vehicle crashes occurred in the United States in 2018, and 36,560 people died as a result of these accidents. Often, and for varying reasons, surviving family members or friends erect an ad hoc, a spontaneous memorial at or near the scene of the fatal accident, such as the one pictured above, in honor or in memory of their loved ones.

A roadside memorial located east of Baraboo, Wisconsin, along Highway 33.
Chris Raymond / Getty Images

What Makes a Roadside Memorial

As you motor along your local roads and highways, you might occasionally notice a small memorial along the shoulder or situated several feet beyond in a grassy area or atop an embankment. These roadside memorials (known as descansos in Spanish) can appear anywhere, such as at intersections, curves in a road, or near guardrails, and generally denote where an individual experienced an automobile accident that resulted in his or her death, whether immediately or later as a result of sustained injuries.

There is no specific form for a roadside memorial. Each is created by a surviving loved one and assumes a simple or elaborate form that a family member or friend considers meaningful. As such, a roadside memorial can comprise practically anything, such as:

  • A religious symbol, such as a Christian cross, Star of David, etc.
  • Flowers or wreaths, whether real or artificial
  • Photographs and/or personal notes
  • Food and/or beverages
  • Vital statistics, such as the deceased's name, birth date and/or death date
  • Candles and/or battery- or solar-powered lights
  • Memorabilia, such as teddy bears, toys, CDs, beer or alcohol bottles, clothing, flags, pinwheels, etc.
  • Artwork and/or other significant graphics
  • A colorful ribbon and/or balloon(s) tied to a tree, street light or telephone pole, etc.
  • Something else entirely

The use of roadside memorials or descansos dates back more than 200 years. This form of spontaneous memorialization is particularly prominent in the American Southwest, especially in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The tradition in the United States is thought to have originated with Latin Americans, who placed such memorials in locations where people died. However, denoting and honoring such spots occurs worldwide and is a much older practice.


Opinions remain divided on the use and presence of roadside memorials in the United States and elsewhere. Obviously, the surviving family members and/or friends of the deceased support their creation and presence, but many people object to such homemade shrines for various reasons. Sometimes, the placement and/or size of a roadside memorial creates a legitimate hazard for motorists, who might find a memorial distracting or a visual traffic obstruction. Others object to the use of religious symbols on public property, considering it a violation of the constitutional principle of separating "church and state." Other people protest against roadside memorials purely on religious grounds, because such shrines can obstruct construction projects, or due to the fact that creating and/or maintaining roadside memorials can endanger human lives.

On the other hand, many people believe that roadside memorials serve a beneficial purpose, such as reminding motorists to slow down and/or drive carefully, or signaling that a particular stretch of roadway might be dangerous.

Still, others dismiss any objections altogether and argue that such spontaneous memorialization provides no greater distraction than the road signs and advertisements that are already littering our roads and highways.

Given the highly emotional and personal nature of such homemade shrines, each U.S. state regulates the legality of roadside memorials within its borders (there is no federal law), and, as you might expect, the laws vary depending on where you live. Some U.S. states, such as Colorado, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wisconsin have banned roadside memorials entirely. Other states, such as Florida, Utah, and Washington, prohibit such ad hoc memorials but offer a state-approved alternative—a roadside sign that encourages motorists to drive safely and bears the name of the deceased. (Surviving families must request and pay for the installation of these signs.) Delaware offers a memorial brick program in which survivors can pay to have the name of a loved one engraved on a brick that forms a memorial garden maintained by the state.

A few states, such as Alaska and West Virginia, have passed legislation that actually encourages surviving family members and friends to create/maintain roadside memorials, but most U.S. states and/or cities fall somewhere between these extremes. For instance, Norton, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance in 2005 limiting the presence of roadside memorials to 30 days, while a mother in Dowagiac, Michigan, was forced to repeatedly replace the roadside memorial in honor of her son six times in just three months because somebody kept removing it despite the fact that the state doesn't ban roadside memorials (although Michigan does prohibit creating roadside hazards).

Ultimately, if you wish to create a roadside memorial, you should check the specific laws in your state and/or municipality. Even if your state does not prohibit these memorials, your city or municipality might.

That said, even in states that ban roadside memorials entirely, many state governments and personnel understand and respect the highly emotional and personal nature of roadside memorials and why people establish them, and therefore might not remove them. In Wisconsin, for example, which bans such homemade shrines completely, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation publicly acknowledges "the need for some people to express themselves in this way" and states, "the department will investigate to determine whether immediate removal is necessary, or if it can reasonably be allowed to remain for a temporary period not to exceed one year." (The photograph above shows just such a memorial along a Wisconsin highway, and has probably existed for a year or more.)

If a roadside memorial is not an option in your area, consider something like a memorial bench.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. General Statistics: State by State. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

  2. Elaine Tassy. Descansos pay tribute to dead, comfort to mourners. Albuquerque Journal. August 10, 2014.

  3. Alyssa Marino. Crosses taken from roadside memorial, May 31, 2015.

  4. "Memorials on State Highways." Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

By Chris Raymond
Chris Raymond is an expert on funerals, grief, and end-of-life issues, as well as the former editor of the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors.