Streetside Memorials, 6.20

A memorial for Desmond Fowler, who was shot to death in May, sits at the corner of 27th and Holdrege streets. 

At some point, a roadside memorial to family member or friend who lost his or her life turns into a faded pile of memories.

Whether that moment comes days or years after the tribute is erected, it occurs at different times to different people. Who gets the ultimate say? This unenviable task, balancing the grief of loved ones vs. the need to keep rights of way reasonably clear, falls to municipal governments.

Lincoln, Lancaster County and the State of Nebraska have three very distinct policies on handling this sensitive subject. In the end, governments must straddle a delicate line that weighs the feelings of those who suffered a loss along with safety to for motorists and the employees who maintain the areas.

Right now, the policies that exist in these jurisdictions are each fine for the situations they encounter. But not all of them get followed by mourners – or applied uniformly by officials.

Many memorials in Lincoln, such as one at 52nd and O streets that’s stood for nearly five years, are well-maintained. However, as the Journal Star’s Riley Johnson reported July 6, not a single one was registered with the city – which allows tributes to stand for 90 days, even though rights of way are supposed to be clear for obvious safety reasons.

Again, the city finds itself in a predicament. Pull the memorial too soon, and raise the ire of family and friends still grieving an untimely death. Leave it linger too long, however, and neighbors could justifiably point to Lincoln’s own policies asking for the removal of sun-bleached teddy bears and deflated balloons.

The city’s sensitivity is surely appreciated by families. But its policies could perhaps be improved with increased specificity regarding maintenance and a means of notifying loved ones – before removing them like election or business signs placed on city property – if a memorial’s upkeep has begun to wane.

Lancaster County, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach, banning homemade tributes and instead placing signs at the request of families.

To date, only two families have asked the county to install such markers – which officials say increases safety for motorists and mourners, given the high speed limits and general lack of shoulders on county roads. These signs have the benefit of being permanent and prominently displaying the names of the crash victims.

Obviously, the differing rules make sense in their respective areas. Lincoln has more roads, traffic and fatal accidents than the county. But it also has more safely accessible rights of way, too.

Consistency is critical, presuming these memorials will be maintained in a sensitive manner for loved ones and a safe manner for drivers.

In both places, the last thing anyone wants to see is another fatal accident affecting a family that’s already grieving, leading to more heartbreak and more memorials.

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