When Ray Cottrell, Jr. put up the first three white crosses to mark the first casualties of the Iraq war, he did not know what the future would hold for US troops overseas.
But the scene outside his Ford dealership in this rural Kentucky town has changed dramatically: Today, 801 crosses and flags dominate the small grassy strip in front of new F-150s and Suburbans.
This Normandyesque memorial has become a somber ritual in the lives of Mr. Cottrell's employees, and they dedicate their time to grooming it as though it were a family cemetery plot. "It really hits close to home," says Larry Green, a retired Army soldier and a salesman at Ray's Ford. "It's like losing a family member each and every time we put a cross out."
At a time when the Bush administration is closely monitoring images of flag-draped caskets containing US casualties, memorials are springing up across the country honoring those killed in Iraq - some intended to convey overt political messages and others just to show support.
As memorials grow from porches and front gates of Army bases across the country, the phenomenon is part of a broader return of mourning symbols and rituals in American society. They also offer a rare touchstone in what has become a fractious divide in the United States over the current military situation in the Middle East.
"These memorials are popping up as avenues to give voice to different areas of the country," says Alan Wolfelt, the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo. "It's one thing to have a memorial in Washington, but not everyone can travel there. These roadside memorials allow people to ... experience the healthy functions of converting grief to mourning - no matter your politics."
Some are simple collections of mementos on the family porch of a slain soldier. Others are more elaborate. Cobbled together with flags and flowers, bricks and crosses, these expressions of grief, support, and even protest are giving Americans vaunted places to absorb the real costs of war, to reflect, and to pray.
Outside Fort Carson, Colo., a new black granite memorial with a map of Iraq and the names of 49 fallen soldiers from the 3rd Task Force Armored Cavalry Regiment was recently unveiled. At the bottom is an inscription that rings of Kipling: "Brave Rifles! Veterans. You have been baptized in fire and blood, and have come out steel."
Today's memorialization harks back to an expression of home that was typified in the 1940s by the popularity of the song "White Christmas," which spoke about Christmases past and coming home - as opposed to the Vietnam War, when the concept of "home" itself was in disarray, both generationally and politically.
In Fonda, N.Y., Veterans for Peace planted 833 crosses in 40 neat lines as part of a temporary memorial at the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. One local Vietnam veteran, Joe Fonda of nearby Fultonville, says he doesn't oppose the display. "They're doing two things - they're trying to get people home, and they're honoring our dead," he says.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., the All Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day - the only one of 13 memorials at the Royal Palm Memorial Gardens cemetery to honor veterans of an ongoing war.
More than 800 pairs of black combat boots were displayed on the lawn of a federal courthouse in Youngstown, Ohio - a tribute to troops who have died in Iraq. Each pair was labeled with a servicemember's name, rank, age, and hometown.
Here in Brandenburg, some may see the Ray's Ford memorial as a perfect statement on why going to Iraq was a mistake. But that's far from what the builders intended. "It's simply a gesture of support for our troops," says Cottrell. Indeed, though most of the organizers of the memorial support the president, they are careful about delivering any kind of general statement.
But elsewhere, memorials embody an antiwar protest. In Ithaca, N.Y., organizers are constructing an eight-foot plexiglas structure where more will be etched than the names of fallen soldiers and the numbers of dead Iraqi civilians. Statements by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld justifying war and a list of corporations that are doing business in Iraq will also be listed.
"I felt a strong need to do this because of the [secrecy around] the caskets and the fact that any remembrance seemed to be swept under the rug," says Ken Ritter, an Ithaca activist who struggled with whether to use the memorial to make a statement about the war.
Yet even in Ithaca, one of the first cities to pass a resolution condemning the decision to go to war in Iraq, the local memorial has still to gain approval to be installed on the public downtown commons. Indeed, some local governments have become squeamish about makeshift memorials in general, such as crosses along accident-prone stretches of highway. In Robbins, Ill., local officials have restricted the size of private memorials.
"There's still the tension between the goals of the nation and the unfortunate and tragic consequences," says John Bodnar, a history professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. "[Memorials] are a way of saying, 'OK, we support this, but we're not actually comfortable with it,' " he says.
Still, no matter one's politics, the memorials are having a deep impact. Here in Kentucky, Green of Ray's Ford notes that the wife of a medical corps officer laid a wreath on a cross inscribed with the name of a soldier who died in the doctor's arms. A veteran from a US ordnance division placed unit insignias on the crosses of lost battalion members. And even those with no connection to the war gaze in awe: "We've had an incredible amount of positive feedback," Green says.
Mr. Ritter in Ithaca agrees. "The reason these memorials are so, well, memorable is that they come from average people."
• Associated Press material was used in this report.