Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Skittles, iced tea, and 1,000,000 hoodies for Trayvon Martin

Skittles, iced tea, and 1,000,000 hoodies for Trayvon Martin.

via Skittles, iced tea, and 1,000,000 hoodies for Trayvon Martin.

Veterans Day #1: Lake Elsinore Veterans memorial proposed for Diamond Stadium

I will be sharing a series of articles from the Inland Empire-based newspaper The Press-Enterprise regarding a proposed Veterans memorial in Lake Elsinore, California and then writing a post about it in the context of spontaneous shrines.  Here is the first article from PE on October 24th:

LAKE ELSINORE: Veterans memorial proposed for Diamond Stadium

The Lake Elsinore City Council will vote on the project at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The cost is put at $46,172



Published: 22 October 2012 04:16 PM

A black granite memorial to military veterans has been proposed for the main entrance to the Lake Elsinore Storm’s Diamond Stadium.

The City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 23, will consider approving the memorial’s final design and $50,000 price tag. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Lake Elsinore Cultural Arts Center, 183 N. Main St.

The six-foot-tall memorial will feature a set of polished black granite pedestals set on a raised concrete circle in front of the stadium entrance. Five small pedestals will be engraved with the emblems of each branch of the armed forces, surrounding a taller, central monument with text over an American Flag.

The base of the monument, under the silhouette of a solider kneeing in front of a cross, will read: “Freedom is Never Free.”

The design was chosen by a committee of Mayor Brian Tisdale, Lake Elsinore Historical Society President Joyce Hohenadl and representatives from local veterans groups, according to a city report.

Hohenadl said the group wanted a prominent location, so they decided to put the memorial right where baseball fans walk in to buy their tickets for Storm games.

“We thought that would be the most visible place for it,” Hohenadl said.

The memorial will be built by Sun City Granite, a Perris company known for its work with the military. The engraving company produces headstones for all fallen troops buried at Riverside National Cemetery.

It also built the National Distinguished Flying Cross Memorial at March Air Force Base and the new veterans memorial in Canyon Lake, said owner Teresa Herbers.

The company, which designed the Lake Elsinore memorial, has agreed to build it for $46,172. The city has $50,000 set aside for the project in its 2012-13 budget.

Follow John F. Hill on Twitter: @johnfhill2

Mojave cross to be reinstalled on Veterans Day, 2012

A while ago, I wrote a post about a memorial cross for veterans located in the Mojave National Preserve in California.  This cross was considered very controversial because of its placement on public property.  It went missing in early 2010 but authorities think it has finally been found– in Half Moon Bay (about 500 miles north of the Mojave).  If possible, I’ll attend the re-installation ceremony on Veterans Day and post about it.  For now, here’s some local news coverage on this interesting event:

MOJAVE CROSS: Memorial found days before replacement ceremony

The foundation of the Mojave Cross was all that remained atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in May 2010. A Veterans of Foreign Wars plans to erect a new cross on Veterans Day 2012.




Published: 06 November 2012 03:19 PM

The protracted and often mysterious Mojave Cross saga took another unexpected turn, just days before supporters of the controversial war memorial were set to celebrate the symbol’s long-awaited return to a desert hilltop.

Two years ago, the cross vanished from its perch in the Mojave National Preserve following a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing it to stand. This week, authorities believe they found the stolen memorial more than 500 miles away in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco.

Affixed to a fence post with plastic ties, the seven-foot cross was found in good condition late Monday, Nov. 5. Attached to it was a note identifying the cross as an “important historical artifact” and asking whoever found it to alert the authorities.

Rebecca Rosenblatt of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department said investigators believed the cross was the same one stolen from the Mojave Desert. She described their efforts to confirm its authenticity as “similar to identifying a lost child with scars or birthmarks.”

Henry and Wanda Sandoz, who have served as caretakers of the cross for decades, were not so sure. They viewed photographs that showed a box-shaped piece at the base of the cross that was not part of the original construction, Wanda Sandoz said. Either way, the couple intend to go ahead with plans to install a replacement cross this weekend.

“We don’t want to give the nut that took it the satisfaction,” Sandoz said Tuesday.

Mojave National Preserve spokeswoman Linda Slater said the cross is considered evidence and on Tuesday was still being held by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department.

The cross was first erected1934 to honor war dead, and the Sandoz’s have kept watch over its various incarnations as a promise to one of the veterans who first placed it on Sunrise Rock, east of Baker in San Bernardino County. Originally made of wood, the cross had been vandalized and stolen before, prompting Henry Sandoz to make one out of iron and bolt it to the rock.

In the 1990s, the cross became the focal point of a national debate over whether the symbol should be allowed to stand on public land in the Mojave National Preserve. The ACLU, which joined a lawsuit seeking its removal, contended that the cross violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the government from endorsing any religion.

In the decade that followed, the case wound through the court system, with judges twice ruling that the cross must come down. That ruling came even though Congress had approved a land swap orchestrated by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands that would have left the cross on private land owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

In 2010, a divided Supreme Court ruled that that decision to remove the cross did not take proper account of the land transfer and sent the case back to federal district court in California. But the cross was stolen two months later, and the federal government barred supporters from replacing it until a settlement was reached. No arrests were ever made. Another cross appeared shortly after but was quickly ordered taken down.

In April this year, a settlement was reached. The land transfer envisioned by Lewis years earlier was formally completed last week, setting the stage for a Veterans Day ceremony this Sunday, Nov. 11, to install the replacement cross.

Sandoz said she hopes the ceremony will signal the end of the fight to return the cross to its original place. “We felt like maybe this would never happen in our lifetime,” she said.

Now, she said, “we feel like – mission accomplished.”

Also contributing to this report: staff writer Gail Wesson and the Associated Press.

Follow Ben Goad on Twitter: @ben_goad


A replacement cross will be erected on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

When: Cross installation, 11 a.m.; rededication ceremony, 1 p.m.

Where: Sunrise Rock, 11.5 miles south of Interstate 15 off Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve

Washed away by the rain – street chalking and ephemeral memorials, Part 1

A colleague of mine from Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, Gillian Graham, sent me the following photos earlier this year:


–and a close-up of the chalking–



She also sent this explanation:

“So this popped up on the corner of 173rd/Haven Ave in NYC last week. I saw it in progress; I saw a woman find out for the first time that this woman had died through this shrine (she grew up with her), and then the next day it was washed out by a rainstorm.”

This New York City shrine is the perfect example of an ephemeral memorial.  I sometimes use the terms makeshift memorial/ephemeral memorial/spontaneous shrine/roadside memorial interchangeably, but in this case, I believe ephemeral memorial is the most appropriate due to the absolute ephemerality of the shrine.  Chalk, by nature, does not last on pavement for very long.  I grew up in the hot and dry suburbs, so as a child, a chalked hopscotch pattern could last for quite a long time (maybe two weeks).  In a place like New York City where there is extreme foot traffic and frequent heavy thunderstorms, anything that is chalked will probably not last more than about one or two days– if even that long.

A shrine like this makes me think of burning offerings for the dead.  You burn them and send them off away from the living to the dead.  A shrine that is made with the understanding that it will soon be gone is delicate yet powerful.  It has intense meaning for the fleeting moments that it exists and then it is washed away.  Like the person to whom it is dedicated, the shrine becomes a memory.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire memorial project CHALK…stay tuned…

Russian Orthodox shrine in Sitka, Alaska

I thought I’d share a photo sent to me by my good friend, Ed Ronco.  He a radio reporter in Sitka, Alaska and noticed this shrine one day in the small southeast Alaskan fishing town.  Not only is it a gorgeous photo, it shows a type of shrine I’d never seen before.

It’s a Russian Orthodox memorial.  Russian Orthodox crosses differ from the crosses typically seen on roadside memorials (which have the two perpendicular beams) as they have an additional top beam (symbolizing the sign reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) and bottom beam (a footrest).  While spontaneous shrines are predominantly Catholic and Protestant crosses/crucifixes, there is the occasional shrine that features a different symbol (including the Orthodox cross or Star of David).

I find this shrine beautiful in its simplicity.  There are not many objects around it–just a bunny and the angels.  It is a simple cross, but it is personalized with the small red heart in the center.  This shrine was obviously built to last a long time as it is made of sturdy material and has a plaque that will weather well.  Especially in a place like Sitka, Alaska where the weather can be harsh and the ever-present damp takes its toll on even the most resilient materials, a shrine must be constructed with durability in mind.

Thanks, Ed,  for sharing this photo of the shrine for Christine Beth Howard.

San Onofre Ghost Bike

Just wanted to share a photo sent to me by my good friend, Ashley Cooper.  She snapped this photo near the San Onofre power plant in southern California.  It shows a ghost bike and accompanying shrine on the fence behind it.  Thanks for sharing the picture!

Hesperia and Apple Valley, California

I’m writing an article right now that’s taken me into a number of small communities in the southern CA desert.  A few days ago, a friend and I drove out to the towns of Hesperia and Apple Valley.  Although they are quite a few miles apart, they are connected by a main thoroughfare that had a few spontaneous shrines along it.  The first shrine we passed in Hesperia was for Kimberly:

We drove about a mile down the road before I saw this nearly hidden shrine out of the corner of my eye.  The memorial for Bryan is a white cross that’s decorated with flowers and tacked onto a telephone pole:

A few miles away, in Apple Valley, we passed a very visible shrine.  It surprised me that such an eye-catching shrine had no name or information on it.

This shrine is particularly interesting, because I can’t tell what kind of a person it is for.  The color of the cross and the presence of multiple stuffed animals are common in shrines for children.  The American flag is often present in shrines for veterans or active military.  I’m not sure what to make of the pail filled with stones.  Stones are often left on Jewish gravesites, and I’ve seen pails filled with votive candles at shrines (presumably for passers-by to light if they so choose), but I’ve never seen a pail filled with stones.  Of course, there is also the possibility that the stones are in the pail to keep the pail itself at the memorial.  Any ideas?

Spanish Spontaneous Shrine

I’d like to share some photos sent to me by a journalist and good friend of mine, Lucas Laursen.  He’s currently based in Spain and came across this spontaneous shrine earlier this year on the side of the road near Guadalupe, Extremadura.  I think this is a particularly lovely example of a roadside memorial.

It is simple yet elegant.  While it stands out against the landscape as something beautiful and human-made, it is also visually jarring.

The red flowers are a warning–a gash in the natural surroundings that passersby can’t help but notice.

Thanks for sharing these photos, Lucas!

If any of you have photos you’d like me to put on the blog, feel free to email them to me.

“When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

Hello dear shriners!

I’m very sorry for the long absence…April was a truly crazed month.  The long and short of it is I ended up leaving a job to pursue freelance journalism full-time, I’m in the process of getting ready to move, I’ll be officially graduating next week from my graduate program [for which this was my thesis, though it’s become much more], and I’ve been putting a lot of time into my part-time responsibilities– namely as an interviewer and host for a public radio station, program assistant and blogger for an education abroad trip that I’m totally excited about [it’s on Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies!], and social media coordinator for a public radio news service.  Plus, New York City’s been a happening place to be what with all of the Occupy Wall Street action!

But, I’m excited to be back in the world of spontaneous shrines.  I’ve been collecting lots of interesting material to cover in the coming weeks and I’m looking forward to having the time to blog on a regular basis again.  I figured I’d start off with a more light-hearted post:

It starts with an empty newspaper/flyer box [like those found on many street corners] in Toronto and a person with a sense of urban art aesthetic who had a creative idea for a DIY [do-it-yourself] project.  This person took some plywood and constructed a flower planter inside the open flyer box.  Then, this DIYer posted the idea on a DIY website along with this picture:

I happened upon this photo of the newspaper box planter one day while searching for “makeshift memorials” online.  It was accompanied by an alternative press blog post entitled: “When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

I find it interesting that although the person who initially created the flyer box planter seemed to be only re-purposing and re-beautifying public space, the person who wrote the blog post transformed the flyer box planter from DIY project into makeshift memorial–and what a makeshift memorial it is!  Not only does it have the typical flower offerings, the flower offerings are planted in an aesthetically pleasing configuration.  It is a lovely example of public art and folk art.  The space calls attention to the newspaper stand, and it’s immediately apparent that the space has been altered.  Those print newspaper lovers among us (I’m definitely one) feel a pang of sadness at the loss of a newspaper, but the flowers help me cope with this feeling of loss.  They are beautiful and give me the physical space to deal with the change from what has been to what is now.  It also invites us to participate in this re-claiming of space–we can all make flyer box planters with simple plywood, dirt, and seeds🙂

This is why I find spontaneous shrines and makeshift memorials such a fascinating topic.  There are so many ways in which public memorialization can be seen in everyday life–and not all of those ways are associated with such terrible topics as death.  People have a need to remember that which has been and memorials, no matter how small or playful, help us reflect upon and move with these changes that comes with time.

With that, I would like to thank you for reading and stay tuned for more posts in the near future!

Fire that sparked a movement: Uniting in memoriam of the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Sunday, March 25, 2012 marks the 101st anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one of the worst industrial tragedies in history.

A fire possibly ignited by a discarded match or cigarette on the 8th floor of the factory caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly young women and girls.  After the fire bell rang, many workers were unable to get out of the building due to locked exit doors, narrow hallways, overcrowding, and collapsed fire escapes.  As a result, over 40 of them jumped from 8th, 9th, and 10th story windows while many more remained trapped inside.

The incident galvanized support for labor movements and unions as people united to fight for a worker’s right to safe working conditions.

Yesterday, a crowd gathered at Gould Plaza in Lower Manhattan to take part in the annual Procession of 146 Shirtwaists to honor those who lost their lives 101 years ago:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The procession went from the plaza to NYU’s Brown building, formerly the Asch building, on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street which historically housed the Triangle Waist Factory.  There were performers:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…and people carrying shirtwaists with sashes bearing the names of the deceased:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Some of the people in the procession were carrying photos of the workers who died in the fire:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

A few of these photo-bearers are related to the workers whose images they carry.  Davin Fortuna is the great-great-grand nephew of Daisy Lopez Fitze, who was 26 when she perished in the fire.  He is pictured here with his wife, Carolyn Asselta-Fortuna and their photo of Daisy:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

When the procession reached its destination, it was met by a crowd comprising labor organizers, members of Workers United, the AFL-CIO, and many more including the Jewish Labor Committee:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

There were speakers from these various organizations, along with one woman who spoke about the unsafe and unethical working conditions in the Queens, NY laundry where she is employed.  She spoke only in Spanish, with a translator by her side, and called for everyone in the audience to hear her cry for help and stand with the laundry workers to demand better treatment.

Although this is not a spontaneous shrine, it is perhaps the perfect example of memorialization for social justice.  I believe it is important to look at memorialization practices outside of the realm of spontaneous shrines to better understand the shrines and this culture of memorialization from which they stem.

People gather here, on this “sacred ground,” to mourn the deaths of others and demand change for the future.  The sacred space is carved out of normal space, hallowed by the blood spilled on the ground and the ghosts in the walls–and the ritual is performed by the participants.  It begins with the ritual raising of the fire ladder:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The names of the dead are read one by one, in an organized fashion.  One flower is placed by the building for each name:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

A bell is sounded for each name; the sound rings clear through the air, jarring each person to attention, carving out the aural space, and carrying the name with it to the dead:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The memorial is personal–for each of the people it is commemorating:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Like many of these community memorializations–and the majority of spontaneous shrines, I believe–while the people to whom the memorials are dedicated may have been of a particular religion, within the space of the ‘memorial ritual’ there are no specific religious practices required and diverse religious and cultural practices are welcomed and accepted, so long as they are done with respect:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The shrines and rituals stand somewhat outside of religion, although they are tied inextricably to it at the same time.  The important idea behind these memorials is to not forget, so although different people will remember and honor in different ways, so long as the tragedy does not fade into history and its lessons are not forgotten, everyone is invited to mourn the past and work together for a better future.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

For those of you in the New York City area, tomorrow (March 25th–the actual 101st anniversary) the names of the workers will be chalked outside of their historic homes which are located throughout the 5 boroughs and New Jersey.  For more information about the chalking project, click here.  Additionally, everyone is invited to ring a bell at 4:45 pm (16:45) EST, to commemorate the sounding of the first fire bell.

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Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics...They are, I believe, the voice of the people." --Jack Santino


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