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When Public Expression of Grief Meets Private Land Owners

My family owns a large piece of land that runs several miles alongside one of the most dangerous roads in our area – it has lots of curves and no center divider during many stretches.  The speed limit has been lowered and other safety measures have been taken, but unfortunately there are usually one or two fatal car accidents per year.  There are several handmade memorials that have been placed alongside the road where the accidents happened.  Right now there is one put up for a man who worked night shifts and apparently fell asleep on his way home, crashing his car.  A little further along is one for two teens who were racing another car and the car they were in flipped, killing them both.  All in all there are about a half-dozen “active” memorials with people regularly leaving flowers, etc. and then two or three memorials that have been there for years, seemingly untouched.

The items left behind range from small crosses, to large painted wooden letters spelling out the deceased’s name zip-tied to a fence pole.  At Christmas last year, someone stuck about 100 plastic tree ornaments through the chain link fence and inserted plastic cups in the grid spelling out “Merry XMas (name of deceased).”   This was a huge installation- about 25 feet in total and I thought could be quite distracting to other drivers on what is already obviously a very dangerous piece of road.  At the site where the teens crashed, their friends put up balloons in their school’s colors when they would’ve graduated and a poster with handwritten messages and photos of the deceased and friends.

The land is rural and mostly let out for grazing to third-parties and we do not live on it or even visit more than once a week.  We obviously do not own the public road, but we do own the fence where the memorials are usually put up and signs are placed every hundred or so yards informing people that they are on private property.

My question is- is it okay to take down the memorials? Especially things like balloons, stuffed animals, posters and the like which quickly deteriorate in the elements. After a couple of weeks in the rain, paper is torn and ink smudged and it frankly looks like trash.  As I said, we don’t live on the land, so I’ve never seen anyone in the act of leaving something, and I don’t think I’d want to confront anyone even if I did. I truly am sympathetic that they lost someone and they want to express that.

My family is split on the issue, with some saying we should remove the items as soon as we see them, like we would with most things that had been left behind on our property. Some think that the memorials are better suited to grave sites or the homes of the bereaved.  Others think we should be more sensitive and just let the more study memorials stay and maybe remove older ones as they get more shabby.

I’d be interested in what E-Hell members would do in our situation. Add signs that say something to the effect of “post no bills?” Ignore it?    0828-14

The resolution of this problem lies in the principles of property ownership and the choices a property owner makes in regards to their own land.    For example, cemeteries have restrictions on what can be placed around grave sites and when.   Our local cemetery prohibits loose objects and other items around the grave during grass mowing season but in the winter, the cemetery becomes decorated with garden flags, little statues, solar lights, etc placed around numerous graves.

Public places do not leave memorials intact and up for unlimited periods of time either.  Bouquets of flowers, candles, toys, notes are left in public, common areas when a tragedy strikes and I do believe the people who do this must know that these items cannot remain there indefinitely.    Items placed at the base of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. are removed daily and I am sure that the many flowers left at Buckingham Palace after Princess Diana’s death were removed before they deteriorated.

A man died after being ejected from his flipping truck just a hundred feet past my driveway several years ago and someone placed a cross made of PVC pipe on the telephone pole near his death site.  It’s still there because it is small enough to be discreet and it is out of the way.   But another death memorial a few miles away consisted of a huge mound of stuffed animals and as time went by, it became disgusting and someone eventually had to clean it up and I’m certain that someone was not the person who originally created that memorial.    Along one highway near us, people have placed memorial crosses or wreaths on the fences at crash sites which remain in place for years.   The main point of this paragraph is to enlighten people who are inclined to do memorials to consider what you leave behind so that you do not create more work for someone else or create an eventual eyesore.

OP, placing more signage on the fence won’t have the deterrent effect you want.    I think you are fine with throwing away items that are disposable and are deteriorating or in danger of deteriorating.   It’s trash at that point.   I’d more inclined to leave discreet items like small crosses, wreaths, plaques, vinyl banners that have been tied to the fence for a period of time of your choosing.   By leaving the more discreet and durable memorials in place, perhaps you may subtly influence others to leave similar memorials in the future.  Obviously you cannot control the road right of way the government owns and maintains but what you choose to do with your own land is your right as property owner and you shouldn’t feel guilty for any decisions you do make.


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  • Rebecca September 4, 2014, 10:44 pm

    If I had that many memorials going up on a piece of road outside my property, I’d be starting a grassroots movement to beg and plead the highways department to do something about the dangerous road. Lower the speed limit, increase enforcement, put up dividers, etc etc.

    Sorry, I know this doesn’t really address the question but several fatalities every year!! That’s upsetting.

  • Cathy September 5, 2014, 12:34 am

    We used to live in an area where there had been some accidents similar to what the OP describes. There were various memorials placed along the road where the accidents happened, one of them involving four crosses, each for one of the people killed in an accident, which one of the victims’ mothers apparently decorated for every holiday. (It’s still there and it has been 10+ years.) While I of course felt bad for the deceased and for the families, I always felt the cemetery is the more appropriate place for memorials, not the roadside.

    If I were the OP I would remove any such memorials that were on land belonging to me. It might be useful to put up signs advising people that it’s private property and no memorials should be left, although that probably won’t deter them.

  • Rowan September 5, 2014, 3:33 am

    There is nothing rational about grief, especially when it’s over someone taken suddenly and way before their time. Leaving tokens or flowers at the site of a road accident may seem tacky or pointless to some, but it’s a way of connecting, reaching out in the place where your loved one had their last moment. Yes, the person died there, but they were also alive there for a moment. That was where the spark went out but we try to cling to its light as long as we can. And sometimes, leaving the place unmarked feels like abandoning the person who died.

    I see my brother in my nephews, in photos, in the house he helped create, in myself. But on his 40th in a couple of months, I will still drive down a certain road, lay flowers at a certain tree and try not to cry too much as I wish him happy birthday.

    • Mariana September 12, 2014, 5:53 am

      You are right, nothing is racional about grief. I lost a dear friend 16 years ago at the age of 16. He died and was buried in his home country (not where I live) and I still wish I could go there see his grave occasionally. He died in a car crash, but I chose not to know where.

  • NicoleK September 5, 2014, 3:39 am

    Consider planting a thick, prickly hedge or shrubs along the side of the road?

    • hakayama September 5, 2014, 8:48 am

      Along a 1/4 mile plus stretch? 😉

    • psammead September 5, 2014, 12:43 pm

      Just so long as they avoid barberry, an exotic that’s turning into a noxious invasive weed. That stuff is evil!

  • Kry September 5, 2014, 6:36 am

    A cousin of mine told me that while he was living in Canada a car had crashed into a tree at the end of his driveway, 2 people were killed.
    The families of the deceased put up a solar powered LED cross at the site that was, unfortunately, bright enough to dazzle passing drivers and made access to his home more difficult. He sent a letter to the local paper explaining the danger of it as why he had removed it and there were no further memorials left there.

  • deary September 5, 2014, 6:47 am

    The state of Montana used to place white crosses at the scene of fatal accidents. Until they discovered that the crosses themselves were CAUSING other accidents, when people would be distracted by seeing 5 0r 7 of them grouped together.

  • Sorka Hanrahan September 5, 2014, 10:59 am

    I’m also thinking of the added danger of stopping to put these things up – you’ve already got a dangerous stretch of road, and now you’ve got people pulling over to the side to park and decorate. Seems like another accident waiting to happen.

  • Judy September 5, 2014, 11:15 am

    The completely passive aggressive way to deal with memorials (especially ones tied to your fence and much more difficult to remove), is to plant some bushes in front of the fence.

    Cecile Brunner (a dense, fast growing, rose bush with thorns) takes care of a multitude of issues. Trespassers, dear, graffiti, nosey neighbors, etc.

  • Moralia September 5, 2014, 2:29 pm

    I know everyone grieves in their own way, but I always cringe at “makeshift memorials” of stuff that’s destined to become trash. If you’re remembering someone you loved, why not do something beautiful in their memory?
    I once heard the loveliest story of someone who went out and broadcast wildflower seeds where a loved one had crashed with the thought that if her spirit did linger in that place, she’d like the flowers better than a cross or similar.

  • kingsrings September 5, 2014, 4:52 pm

    In CA thankfully, there are laws in place to remove any memorials on highways. However, they don’t extend to any other public roads, so we’re stuck with those. We do have one long, windy road that is thus a careless idiot driver magnet and thus has a fair amount of crosses alongside it in different area. Thankfully, they’re small and discreet enough to not cause that much of a distraction. But of course once in a while you see one of the hideous memorials that have already been discussed in length here. And I can recall one case in particular at our local cemetery a number of years back where the items and such left at a teen’s grave were become so enormous that they were starting to encroach onto the graves next to it. There was big argument between the family/friends of the teen girl and the cemetery and others. The girl’s side claimed that they weren’t being allowed to grieve as they saw fit to and everyone who was against them were big, insensitive meanies. A similar incident happened at another cemetery where a mother was fighting the cemetery to be allowed the right to leave small toy cars on her young son’s grave. Such items weren’t allowed because they interfered with the landscaping. Again, she was making the same claims that the girl’s family was.
    The bottom line is, just because you’re grieving doesn’t mean you get to engage in actions that negatively affect other people, such as creating dangerous and unsightly road memorials. That is somebody else’s property, and they and possibly the law are the only ones who get to determine what is okay to be left there.

  • whoop September 6, 2014, 9:52 am

    What a tricky situation! OP, I think that it’s clear from your choice of words that your heart is in the right place with this. Just the fact that you are considering leaving up durable items is more than anyone could hope for when they are posting memorials on what is clearly private property. I once read somewhere that the healthy limit on the period of intense (i.e. “blind”) grief after a loved one passes is about one month. Grief still lingers on, of course, but most healthy people who may have temporarily lost their common and social senses will have begun to have regained them by that point. So, I think that you are perfectly within the bounds of sympathy to take things down that are older than that, and still be relatively safe from confrontations with grief-angry individuals. I would also consider that “dead” or “rotting” things are OK to remove.

    There is an interesting and useful theory in sociology/criminology called “broken window” theory. Basically, people are more likely to engage in criminal or anti-community behavior if the environment appears to be unkempt – i.e., a potential criminal (otherwise a noncriminal individual) is more likely to commit a crime if it appears that no one will care and criminal actions will not stick out or be easily identifiable. I.e., they can continue being a noncriminal in their own eyes because their crime appears to be anonymous and victimless. I have successfully used this theory when it comes to subtly training people where to put things in my home – people are less likely to treat the dining room table like a catch-all if it is always set! I think that this behavioral phenomenon would extend to the obviously encroaching act of posting displays on private property, then leaving the trash for the owner of said property to clean up. Whatever you decide to do, I think it is important to start doing it. Simply cleaning up will likely make a large and immediate dent in the problem.

    I also bring this up because you had stated that you are not on your property very often, and that we are talking about a chain-link fence. I would posit that people, especially those who are blinded by their grief, are more likely to feel that they are doing nothing wrong if they can temporarily forget the humanity of the owner of the fence. A simple “private property” sign is easy to ignore (people will just post in an area away from the sign…”maybe only that side is private….”), and a chain-link fence might appear very commercial. To a grief-stricken person, they are an emotional human being and you may appear to be faceless and unemotional, making their actions more justifiable in their heads. (I call it the “Air Bud” defense – i.e., “Even though you technically own it, I have the greater emotional attachment to it! Air Bud isn’t your dog because he doesn’t really love you!”). Perhaps consider planting a hedge or tossing some wildflower seeds around the fence – any personal, non-clinical touches to make the area more obviously owned and “cared for” by a human being. A more garish, but highly effective, solution would be to spray-paint the fence in white or gold or bright orange or rainbow colors – anything that looks like an obvious, human attempt toward customization. ownership, or personality. To those with some sense, it will feel more like they are posting something on someone’s home, which is the essential legal equivalent of what they are doing when they post things on your fence. The more obtuse and/or “determined” memorializers will at least have to consider making the memorials smaller and more discrete if they wish them to remain, since they are obviously at greater risk of being “found” and removed by a property owner that appears to have an emotional engagement with how their fence looks.

    I was also thinking to suggest creating a special memorial-friendly area along the fence so that at least the cleanup is all in one place (with the added bonus of making a bit of a statement piece about the danger of the road), but then I realized that this could invite liability on your head if people constantly pull over at an area that *you* obviously chose, and the shear concentration of memorials could become a distraction itself. Perhaps the key is a balancing act. You can’t control the road, and people are going to post memorials no matter what, but maybe you can grow hedges or sunflowers or something along the fence with the exception of a few small areas (whoops, the hedges just wouldn’t grow there!) so that people naturally must confine their displays to those available areas. As stated above, it also makes it more difficult for people to ignore the fact that someone clearly takes care of the property! Then, perhaps move the “private property” signs to those areas so that their meaning and range are harder to ignore.

    All of this will cost money, of course, but it sounds like you are in that position anyway when it comes to disposing of accumulating waste. Perhaps these upfront costs will balance out your waste removal costs in the long run. Good luck, and thank you for being such a caring, sympathetic human.

  • Enna September 6, 2014, 10:56 am

    I think the admin’s advice is good on this one. Maybe also speak to the council or whoever is responsible for road safety of that road to check that no one is doing anything unintetnially dangerous. One poster commented about one man contacting the newspaper to do an articule about how distracting road side memorials can be. Maybe also do this?

    As long as you are tactful and sensitive to people’s feelings then it should be easier to negociate. But I do think that removing tatting things is reasonable.

  • Alli September 6, 2014, 10:50 pm

    I’m going to echo the point raised by other posters: memorials, especially big or elaborate ones, are a distraction for drivers and actually make things less safe. I understand it’s hard to lose a family member, so you have to remember: don’t do anything that increases the danger so someone else loses their family member in the same place.

  • plainbelliedsneetch September 8, 2014, 1:38 pm

    There may be legal issues to consider when allowing a memorial to stay up. If (God forbid) someone were injured or killed while visiting a site on the OP’s property, it could be claimed the OP and family failed to prevent trespassers (I know there is a fence and signs, but someone could argue they were clearly ignored and the family made no effort to enforce them.)

    An earlier poster’s suggestion of a letter to the local paper (or an article, if the paper’s willing) explaining safety concerns might help smooth things over when the memorials get taken down.