Roadside shrines help loved ones deal with tragedy
The white crosses stand tall in the roadside grass.
Teddy bears, dog statues, handwritten love letters, birth dates and "heaven dates" inscribed in wood remind motorists of a life lost. Ceramic angels and faded photos keep watch over the place where a husband, daughter or friend died in a car crash.
Tuesday, fresh bouquets of flowers marked the site where Lisa Clay Styles was fatally struck by an SUV while out jogging Monday in Mt. Lebanon. When three Greensburg Salem teens were killed in a car crash last weekend, a roadside memorial was created by their friends the same day. They are not alone in their public display of grief. Hundreds of such memorials are visible across Pennsylvania.
"As a mother, you never get over losing a child, no matter the age, no matter the circumstance," says Priscilla Hall, of Freeport, about why she built a roadside memorial on Ekastown Road in Buffalo Township to her son, David Bower. He was 29 when he was killed in 2003 riding a motorcycle that was hit head-on by a car. "And you don't want other people to forget."
The memorial helps with the healing, she says.
"It is just my wish that if people see the memorial, it will make them think, 'I should slow down. Somebody got killed here,' " says Hall, a hospice nurse. "I believe this is the site where my son went to heaven. This is sacred ground. I feel his presence here."
Some say one twin knows when the other is hurting. Tim Lammert knew.
On Feb. 27, 2006, Lammert's identical twin brother, Steve, was killed along with Kelly Flannery whose car was broadsided on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in Brentwood.
"I felt something that I can't really explain, and then we got the call," says Tim Lammert, as he stands near the memorial that bears crosses for his twin and Flannery.
"I don't ever want my brother to be forgotten," he says. "I miss him so much. They called us the bookend twins because we both played defensive end on the football team for the Brentwood Dukes. He was not only my brother. He was my best friend. When I have problems, I go to the roadside memorial. When I drive by, I tell him, 'Rest in peace, bro.' "
The roadside memorial is a caution marker, says his father, Robert Lammert.
"It is here to remind people to slow down," says Robert Lammert. "Two young people died here, right here. It took me a long time before I could drive by this spot. I would drive all the way around, so I didn't have to see it. But I knew I had to face it sometime. ... When I look at Tim, I see Steve. It's hard, really hard."
Tim Lammert visits the memorial and wonders what things would have been like.
"When I am down and out I come here, and Steve's spirit lifts me," Tim Lammert says. "I know he is in a better place. But there are so many things he never got to do. Life is precious, so when you pass a memorial, think about that. Think about not taking life for granted because it can be gone in an instant."
Beth Branthoover from Blacklick, Indiana County, has kept a memorial for seven years for her 3-year-old niece, 23-month-old nephew, and sister-in-law who were killed in 2003 when a car plowed broadside into their van on Route 422 and Cardiff Road in Belsano.
Among the blooming flowers, there are teddy bears and bunny rabbits, even a Tweety Bird, next to three crosses adorned with patriotic flags, an angel and a pinwheel.
"We want to remind people to slow down," Branthoover says. "We need to do more to remind people how precious life is, and how quickly it can be gone. ... They took their last breath there, and the cemetery where they are buried is four hours away, and I can't always go there, so I go to the memorial site."
Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Martinka, the 17-year-old son of Terry and Mary Martinka of Natrona. Two crosses stand out from the side of the hill where several flower arrangements and colorful wreaths sprout from the ground. An angel is tucked inside a grotto. At night, solar lights illuminate the memorial,
Taking care of the memorial is not easy emotionally, says Terry Martinka.
"I feel like my son is here," he says. "It helps me to have the roadside memorial. It keeps me close to him, because this is where he passed away. .. I pretty much stop every day, and when I drive by I beep the horn. It makes me feel better. ... As long as I live I will take care of it."
Chester Glenn of Highland Park and LaKeisha Rankin of Wilkinsburg didn't know each other, but on May 25, 2006, the two became forever connected.
Glenn's son, Jerome Smith, 36, and Rankin's mother, Michelle Rankin, 35, were driving together when a pickup truck, fleeing police, careened through a red light in Homewood. They were killed instantly.
Flowers cling to a telephone pole. Photos, faded from the weather, show smiling faces of Smith and Rankin.
"It helps to have this memorial here," says Glenn as he winds wire around a cross adorned with artificial yellow flowers to the pole. "People who don't even know us walk by when we are here and say, 'Sorry for your loss.'... When I drive by, I blow my son a kiss, because he was more than my son. He was my best friend."
Rankin plans to continue to take care of the roadside memorial. She and Glenn want people to know what happened there.
"It took me a long time before I could ride by this corner," Rankin says. "This hasn't been easy for me or my brother, Julian. This all could have been avoided. I am glad I have Chester. He and I are close because of this tragedy, and we come here to this spot to remember and to comfort each other."
While there is no law against erecting roadside memorials, PennDOT District 11 spokesman Jim Struzzi says there is kind of an unwritten procedure.
"PennDOT is certainly sympathetic to the needs of the family and friends when it comes to roadside memorials," he says. "We would prefer not to see them, but conversely, we appreciate what they mean to people. We would say, if they want to erect them, that they keep in mind where they are erecting the roadside memorial so as not to be distracting to drivers.
"We would prefer they talk to us first, and we can work on something that is suitable. This was obviously a tragedy that occurred, and we are willing to work with them."
Sometimes, the grieving family acts independently in putting up memorials.
Deborah Henderson set up a memorial for her son Jimmy Henderson, 28, who was killed, along with David Roble, 21, in a 2008 car accident.
Then, she says, "we went past one day after we put it up, and it was gone. So we had a cross made and cemented it in the ground. I didn't want to move it because that is where he was killed. It is a dangerous road, and we want people to think about how fast they are going."
On May 16, the cross, the fence around it, a teddy bear and a note from her was uprooted because it was on land owned by Keystone State Park. The Henderson family took it to her yard in Unity, Westmoreland County.
Before she left the original site, she said a prayer, then buried a photo of her son and a flower in the ground.
"The roadside memorials are a very personal thing," says Cindy Wallace of Brooklawn, N.J, who created a website -- Roadsidememorialsites.com -- in which people can permanently share and store their memorial site. "I am moved by them."
There is some debate as to whether roadside memorials are a good idea.
"There are only two things we do in life," says Dr. Paul Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside. "We either hold on or let go. We do it with money, hair, teeth and people who died at these roadside memorials. These roadside memorials are signs of holding on."
In the case of car accidents, where people die instantly, it is different than when death is expected from illness, Friday says. So a roadside memorial is more of an impromptu response.
"The vast majority of roadside memorials are a way to keep the memory alive," Friday says. "They might be perceived by someone outside the situation as the dark side and the cynicism of why people make this public display by wearing their deceased on their sleeve. But for many, this is the place where life ended and death began. This is also the place where the living lives have changed forever."
Roadside memorials represent indescribable pain and are a way of screaming that the unthinkable has happened here.
"Pain teaches you to see the preciousness and fragility of life," says Lillian Meyers, a Bethel Park clinical psychologist, whose 17-year-old son Jimmy was killed in a car accident in 1980. "All of these roadside memorials .... they could be for you or someone you love in a heartbeat."
Dan Martin calls them "Carrie Moments."
Those are the times when he remembers his daughter who died from complications of a lung transplant and cancer in 1999. She was 15. These moments happen when he sees a horse -- she loved horses -- or watches someone reading to a child like he did nearly every night.
To keep Carrie's memory alive, he and his wife, Linda, of Bethel Park, created Caring for Kids The Carrie Martin Fund through Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
"There were times when Carrie would be so sick, but would tell me about other children in the hospital and (she) was concerned about what they were going through," Dan Martin says. "That was Carrie."
The Martins' effort is one of many ways to memorialize a loved one.
"I know how it feels during that first holiday or birthday when your loved one is no longer there," says Lillian Meyers, whose 17-year-old son Jimmy was killed in a car accident in 1980. Meyers is a clinical psychologist from Bethel Park and program chairwoman for Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents, grandparents and siblings who are grieving the death of a child.
"The worst fear is that people will forget your loved one," says Meyers. "Finding ways to memorialize a loved one helps his or her memory live on."
Cindy Lewis of Mt. Washington writes letters to her daughter Laura, who was 31 when she died of a heroin overdose in 2009. "It helps me to know that people are thinking of her and remembering her," says Lewis. "Writing the letters comforts me."
Comfort for Elaine Liberati of Hampton comes in helping schools acquire AED machines. Her daughter Annie, 22, died from a virus that had no warning signs. Having life-saving equipment close by might help another family not have to go through a loss.
"It is such deep pain that it is unimaginable," Liberati says."So, you need to do something that connects you to them, or something they liked to do."
Sandy Linsenbigler of Swissvale has a photo display in her home of her son CJ, who died a year ago from an accidental overdose at age 28. She often lights candles for him. She hasn't changed anything in his room and clutches one of his Nike T-shirts before she goes to bed.
"I hold that T-shirt so tight and wish I was holding him," she says. "You always want to find ways to talk about him. Our biggest fear is that someone might forget."
Michael Martinka, the 17-year-old son of Terry and Mary Martinka of Natrona, was killed in a car accident on his way home from work in 2009. His parents, with the help of others, have created a memorial fund in his name. The money will help students at Forbes Road Career and Technology Center.
Paul Glunk was 22 when he was killed in a car accident in 2006. His parents, Jan and Bill Glunk of Pleasant Hills, decided to keep his memory alive by donating books for the Waterfront Eat'n Park training room every year on his birthday. Their son had worked there for the chain since he was16 and was named manager a week before his death.
"We want everyone who walks into that training room to know about our son and his love of working for Eat'n Park," Jan Glunk says. "This is the perfect way for us to memorialize Paul. He is gone, but we don't ever want his memory to be gone."