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

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Shrines for Winehouse Said No to Rehab

Amy Winehouse was found dead in her home on July 23, 2011.  After an autopsy, it was determined that she died of accidental alcohol poisoning.  Her BAC (blood alcohol content) was 5 times the British legal limit.  She had reportedly been trying to give up alcohol and had spent most of the month sober.  However, earlier in the week she had started to binge drink again.  When she was discovered, there were 3 empty vodka bottles near her bed.

Several shrines popped up around the world in tribute to the 27 year old Grammy-winning star.  The largest was located near the London home where she died.  Placed at the shrine were teddy bears, flowers, votive candles, CDs, personal notes and…empty vodka bottles.

In my experience, it is quite common to find alcohol left at spontaneous shrines–especially cans and bottles of a person’s favorite beer.  If the person was a smoker, there are often cigarettes, ashtrays, and lighters left as well.  However, I think it is quite a different situation when these objects are left at a shrine for a pop culture figure.

While Winehouse’s propensity for alcohol was common knowledge [her award-winning song “Rehab” deals with this issue], other intimate details about her likes and dislikes that would otherwise have influenced the choice of how to decorate her shrine may not have been known.  Because the shrine was created by her fans, rather than her family or close acquaintances, I believe it was more in memory of her persona rather than her as a person.

Her death at the young age of 27 secured her spot among interesting company, as a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock and roll [and popular music] icons who all died at the same age.  This group includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones [Rolling Stones], and Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], to name a few.  When she died, her created persona–her character–Amy Winehouse the Star–died as well.  While those who were close to her might mourn the loss of their loved one, her fans mourn the loss of their beloved artist.

For example, Jim Morrison’s grave site in Paris is a popular pilgrimage site for young musicians.  Along with the usual offerings of notes, candles, and flowers, his grave is known for being covered in wine bottles, condom wrappers, needles, and other drug paraphernalia.  These appear to be offerings to more than just Jim Morrison; they are in memory of the rock and roll era for which he was a figurehead.  Drugs, sex, and rock and roll, the ethos of the 60s and 70s, Jim Morrison–all are lost and must be remembered.

Likewise, there is more being remembered than simply ‘Amy the 27-year-old’ at her shrine.  The empty vodka bottles are for the musician who would sing openly about alcoholism and drug addiction, rehab and depression.  They are for a person who is known for enjoying vodka.  They are for the person who sang: “I don’t ever want to drink again / I just need a friend.”

It is ironic that the offerings to Amy Winehouse are the same bottles of alcohol that caused her death, but they are the offerings that loyal fans associate with a musician they cannot and will not forget.  In a way, there is no harm that leaving the alcohol can possibly do.  They cannot hurt her now, and while they may be seen by some as “glorifying” a culture of alcoholism, they might also be the only way for those who knew her through her music alone to pay respectful and personal tribute to her life and work.

Ohio – time limit for shrines?

This is an interesting article I found recently at Ohio.com that discusses the more controversial side of shrines.  One mother says she wouldn’t want a constant reminder of her son’s death.  Since it is usually family and friends who erect shrines, should it be a personal choice or fall under some type of state legislation?  If the shrines are taken down after a certain period of time and replaced with permanent markers, are they still spontaneous shrines or does their function and identity change when the conscious choice to erect a permanent memorial is made?  If shrines do construct a sacred space, can a sacred space be removed?  What do you think?

Residents seek time limit on makeshift memorials

By Stephanie Warsmith

Beacon Journal staff writer

Published: October 9, 2011 – 12:24 AM


A make-shift memorial hangs on a pole near the intersection of Work and Hillwood Drives in West Akron. Local block watch leaders want Akron City Council to limit displays like this. (Paul Tople/ Akron Beacon Journal)

Teddy bears are fuzzy and cute. Flowers are fresh. Handwritten tributes are clean and clear.

Then, time and weather take their toll.

After weeks or months – in some cases, years – the makeshift memorials on utility poles or trees around Akron deteriorate.

The teddy bears turn soggy and gray. Flowers wilt. Handwritten tributes become illegible.

Rather than serving as a tribute to someone who died, they become an eyesore.

A group of block watch leaders in West Akron is asking City Council to consider limiting how long these memorials can be displayed. They suggest the city remove them after a certain period, perhaps two weeks or a month.

“We are not insensitive to the issues,” said Gerald Stafford, president of the Beechwood Block Club. “How long is long enough to have it out there? It does have the tendency to bring the neighborhood down.”

Stafford had a firsthand view of the ugly side of the impromptu memorials with one erected on a light pole down the street from his Beechwood Drive home. Candles left burning around the memorial — put up to honor a 19-year-old Akron man shot and killed after a fight with another man over a gun in August — caught the stuffed animals on fire. Neighbors had to rush to extinguish the blaze.

Residents haven’t been able to get rid of a message spray-painted in white in the middle of the street: “RIP (Rest in Peace) Juice,” which was the nickname of the man who was killed.

Stafford, Ivory Alexander and Zenobia Lathan, who head the three West Akron block clubs nicknamed “The Woods” because the streets have the word “wood” in their names, recently wrote a letter to Council President Marco Sommerville, who represents Ward 3, urging him to consider legislation limiting the memorials. They say they have the support of the other 15 to 20 residents who regularly attend their block club meetings.

Sommerville and Councilman Russel Neal Jr., who represents the nearby Ward 4, also in West Akron, are studying the issue and looking at how other communities have addressed it. They hope to craft legislation that responds to the concerns raised by residents, while being sensitive to those who put up the memorials. They are considering offering a permanent marker as a replacement — possibly where the makeshift memorial stood or on a tribute wall elsewhere in the city.

“We want to find a way, when we do lose people, that we can acknowledge it and honor it,” said Sommerville, who owns a funeral home and has handled the services of some of those being memorialized.

Neighbors’ view

Besides considering the memorials unsightly, the block club presidents say they provide a constant reminder of crime in their neighborhood.

Some of the memorials are in honor of people killed in an accident, like a car crash, but many are for people who have been shot or beaten to death.

“These things are just reminding us of how many homicides we have in our area,” said Lathan, president of the Fernwood Block Club and a Fernwood resident for 30 years.

The block club presidents have been trying to figure out how many memorials there are in Akron. They’ve found more in their neighborhood than elsewhere in the city, though they know of a few in other neighborhoods and realize there might be others they haven’t heard about. They recently took the Beacon Journal on a tour of the ones they’ve found.

The tour began on Beechwood, with the memorial that caught on fire. The memorial mysteriously disappeared after a recent block club meeting where the memorial issue was discussed. The grass around the pole is charred from the fire and bits of paper and tape still are visible on the pole. The spray-painted message remains in the street.

The next stop was the largest memorial the residents know about: on a utility pole at the corner of Copley Road and Mercer Avenue. It was put up in honor of a 3-month-old girl who died when she was thrown from a car in an accident in August 2010. More than 30 dirty, soggy stuffed animals, baby blankets and fake flowers are attached to the pole. One teddy bear has a burned spot on its head from a candle.

The memorial is in front of the former Handel’s, where the girl’s name and “RIP” are spray-painted in blue on one of the boarded-up windows.

The third stop was a much smaller memorial on a tree on the devil’s strip at Hillwood and Work drives, where a 24-year-old Akron man was found shot in his car in May 2010.

A mother walking her son to a school bus discovered the body. A few sad-looking stuffed animals are attached to a tree, along with several faded T-shirts, including one that was a tribute to the victim but is now hard to decipher.

The tour next headed up East Avenue, going past a couple of roadside memorials — one for a young girl who was raped and another for a 44-year-old man who was beaten to death.

The final stop was on Celina Avenue, where police shot a 42-year-old Akron man 22 times in July 2009 after he refused to get on the ground and reached for a gun. The memorial, which once completely covered a chain-link fence, has dwindled to a sign with a picture of the man, a few flags and a pin wheel, and a couple of stones with spiritual messages. One stone reads, “Your memory is our keepsake, which we’ll never forget.”

Victims’ view

The Rev. Bob Denton, who heads Victim Assistance, a local agency that works with crime victims, said the memorials are a way for people to cope with their loss.

“It gives people the ability to do something and express to the community their concern,” he said.

Still, Denton said he knows the memorials start to lose their appeal when they’ve been up awhile.

“If you put it up for one of your loved ones and it is standing there ragged and sad, it doesn’t reflect well on the person you are memorializing,” he said.

Denton hopes the city will give families a different option, perhaps a permanent marker to honor the people they lost.

“Put the control for how they want to deal with that back in their hands,” he said. “They didn’t have a choice when they lost their loved one.”

Katherine Brooks, aunt of Garland Dean, whose beating death is marked by a memorial on East Avenue near the spot where his body was found in the woods just over a year ago, doesn’t think regulations are needed on the memorials.

“It’s not hurting anybody,” she said of the memorial, which includes a white wooden cross, balloons and fake flowers.

Brooks said her family maintains the memorial by periodically replacing the balloons and cleaning up around it. She thinks it’s a good reminder of how the police haven’t charged anyone for her nephew’s death, much to the family’s frustration.

She said, however, that the family might be satisfied with some other type of marker.

“As long as it’s something,” Brooks said, breaking into tears. “Something we can go and look at.”

Her voice catching as she sobbed, Brooks said, “They won’t even find the person.”

Gloria Twitty, an Akron woman whose 29-year-old son, Lemetrius, was killed in Atlanta nine years ago, thinks the memorials should be taken down after a reasonable time period. She said Akron is trying to improve neighborhoods, including where she lives near the Akron Zoo, and the memorials detract from that effort.

“I wouldn’t want something like that representing where my son was killed,” she said. “I wouldn’t want a reminder.”

Political view

Akron isn’t the first community to grapple with makeshift memorials.

Neal and other city officials have found legislation on this issue from as far away as Arizona. He said most allow the memorials to remain for two weeks to a month. After that point, he said, some communities allow families, at their own expense, to purchase a permanent marker to take the place of the memorial.

Other communities have started a memorial wall, where names of victims can be posted.

The memorials people might notice most are those they zoom past on the interstate.

The Ohio Department of Transportation doesn’t permit memorials, but allows them to remain as long as they don’t pose a hazard or draw away drivers’ attention. When the state does maintenance work, such as mowing, memorials in the way are removed, said Justin Chesnic, a spokesman for the department’s District 4.

The state legislature can pass a law for a permanent highway sign to be erected in a person’s honor, he said.

Neal said one challenge in Akron is that the memorials are often on property owned by someone other than the city, such as a utility pole, where the city probably wouldn’t be permitted to place a permanent marker.

He wants to involve residents in crafting the city’s legislation. He and Sommerville are working with the law department to draft some ideas and will meet with local block clubs to get their input.

Neal said he hopes to get the legislation together in the next two months.

“I think, when we get the community together, we will be able to work through this — and honor their lives,” he said.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com.

EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! Makeshift memorial as news headline!

In early October there was a shooting in Seal Beach, California that killed eight people and wounded at least one other.  Something caught my eye while I was scanning through the news related to the shooting.  Several of the articles featured the makeshift memorial (another name for spontaneous shrine) in the headline!  The article posted below is a prime example.  The main content of the article is about the shooting, not the memorial.  However, the memorial is used as the hook to grab readers’ attention.  In recent years, awareness about the presence of shrines has increased, and with it people’s fascination with the unique folk memorials.

I wonder if, especially in places like southern California where violence is not uncommon (particularly in the popular news media–which seems to take advantage of every opportunity to highlight all types of crime) the memorial is used in the headline to arouse curiosity because crime itself does not anymore.  In the same way that roadside shrines put faces and names and individual lives to the greater issue of HIGHWAY FATALITIES, memorials focus on the personal consequences of crime–the lives lost because of it, rather than the larger issue of CRIME itself.  The memorial in the headline is the anti-numbing agent, so to speak, in contrast to the ever-present ‘this crime happened and so did this one and so did this one…’

See the article on the Los Angeles Times blog, here.

Makeshift memorial set up at Seal Beach shooting scene

October 12, 2011 | 10:19 pm

Seal Beach shooting rampage
After darkness descended Wednesday, a group of neighbors and bystanders assembled a spontaneous memorial of flowers, candles and cards outside the Seal Beach beauty salon where eight people were slain and another critically wounded in a shooting rampage.

Some prayed aloud near the police tape that marked the crime scene. Their prayers went out to all their neighbors and friends since the victims have not yet been publicly identified.

Full coverage: Deadly shooting at Seal Beach hair salon

Pam Rayburn, 53, placed sunflowers under the small tree draped with police tape.

She also left a handwritten card that read: “To the family of my neighbor: I don’t know you, but I want you to know you are not alone.”

Rayburn said she lives just across the San Gabriel River in Long Beach, but walks past the salon every day, goes to a nearby salon and considers Seal Beach her home. Her husband practices law from an office a few blocks away on the town’s Main Street.

Rayburn, who works at Cal State Long Beach, lost her 23-year-old daughter to suicide four years ago and said news of the deaths Wednesday stirred up memories of that day.

She pictured the families of the victims being called by police with painful news.

“No family should ever get that call,” she said.

 “It just doesn’t make sense. It’s such a small town; nothing ever happens,” Rayburn said, wiping away tears. “Another tragedy, another senseless loss.”

–Tony Barboza in Seal Beach

Photo: People comfort each other Wednesday afternoon near the shooting scene. Credit: Gina Ferazzi /Los Angeles Times


Sunrise and sunset: the ghost bike for William Daniel Rodriguez

A little while ago, I was walking with some friends from Greenpoint to the Brooklyn Bridge.  About halfway through the walk we neared the Williamsburg Bridge.  The East River was to our right and a strong wind was blowing down Kent Avenue.  Chained to a signpost near a Jewish community center was a small, spray-painted white bike with flat tires.

I recognized it as a ghost bike, or a memorial bicycle placed at the site where a cyclist was killed, usually by another vehicle.  The first time I saw a ghost bike was in Amsterdam.  It was surrounded by flowers and stood out bright against the sea of bikes that continuously travel through the city.  This particular bike is quite small–it looks like it is meant for a child.

The writing on the post behind the bike reads:








You will always

Be in our



Big Will

The writing on the bike itself reads:





10:39 pm

Your welcome to take a balloon and let it go in his name.

The writing is done in black permanent marker.  The bike is adorned with blue  and white ribbons.  Above the bike, attached to the post is a set of large fake flower hearts, one white and one red.  In front of the tires are a set of four votive candles, one of which has a pair of cigarette lighters in it.  In front of the bike, there is an old, water-stained copy of the children’s book When Sheep Sleep, which has “for Danny” written on the cover.

From the writing, it appears that William Daniel Rodriguez, perhaps known as “Danny” died when he was 18 years old.  I’m guessing he may have been a smoker because of the cigarette lighters, but it is equally possible that the lighters have been left there for people to use for the votive candles.  Although I believe he was 18 when he died, the kid’s book and kid’s bike lead me to believe that his parents and other family members are the ones who set up the memorial.  He is remembered in his role as a child in a family, rather than as a friend or lover.

After returning home, I went onto the Ghost Bikes website to see if I could find out any additional information about this particular bike.  There is a page for William Rodriguez, but the information does not closely match the bike I saw.  The location is correct, but the date of death does not seem to be correct.  The page says: “A ghost bike appeared on Kent Avenue on October 8, 2009 to remember William Rodriguez, killed by the drunk driver of a truck in 2002.”  While it may be true that the bike appeared in 2009, the bike itself refers to William’s “sunset” as happening in 2007, not 2002.  The page also lists his age at death as 19 years old, whereas if the bike is correct, he would have died about a week before his 19th birthday.

This leaves me wondering if the information for the other bikes in New York City is correct. Of course, I can’t be sure whether the bike or the page is correct, but I’m inclined to trust the shrine itself.  Therefore, I’ve decided to do a bit of traveling.  I am going to visit each of the 80 ghost bikes listed for NYC (and any I pass along the way) and record the information I find on and around the bikes.  I’ll photograph the bikes as well.  I’m not sure what I’ll do once I’ve visited them all, but I feel like I should take a look at these memorials myself to see what I can learn about each individual.

The list can be found here.  To see a map of the bikes, look here.

Now– to the streets of New York I go in search of the white bikes…

A pumpkin on the Speedway

This is an interesting article about the most recent spontaneous shrine on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Driver Dan Wheldon died in a car crash in late October and a memorial was erected for him near the track.  Although his shrine is similar to many other race car drivers’ memorials, there is one thing that stood out to me in particular.  Someone carved a pumpkin with his number (77) and left it at the memorial.  Because his death occurred during Autumn and just before Halloween, his memorial was personalized with decorations appropriate to the season.  You can find the article in its original form, here.

Fans leave tributes for Dan Wheldon

  • INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Wheldon‘s biggest fans wanted one more chance to thank their favorite driver Monday.

One-by-one they turned Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s main gate into a memorial for the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who was killed Sunday in a fiery crash at Las Vegas. Less than 24 hours later, the iron bars at IMS were decorated with flowers, notes of condolence, checkered flags, American and British flags and even half-gallon milk jugs, symbolic of the traditional victory drink at Indy.

“Dan was special, he was a hero,” said Nick Garside, a 37-year-old Indy resident who grew up in Wheldon’s home country of England. “We had a group of British fans who would get together the last nine years in the plaza and fly our flags. Dan made us happy on two occasions. He gave me two of the happiest days of my life and one of the saddest as well.”

Scott Olson/Getty Images
James Allen looks over tributes to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon which have been left behind at a memorial at the gate of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was Indy where the 33-year-old IndyCar driver had his greatest successes and the most devoted fan-base outside his native country.

He won the Indianapolis 500 driving for Michael Andretti’s team in 2005 and won it again in May for Bryan Herta’s team — in what was, at the time, his only scheduled race of the season. Along with being the 18th driver to win Indy twice, Wheldon also finished as the runner-up in 2009 and 2010 with Panther Racing and finished third in 2004.

Fans loved him for more than winning races, though.

“He was an amazing driver, an amazing father, an amazing person,” said Paula Buis, a 41-year-old Indy resident who dropped off an American flag with flowers attached to it. “He smiled wide and he was always happy around everybody. My heart goes out to everybody who loves him.”

Track officials lowered the flags above the main office to half-staff, and later Monday afternoon, they hung a 5-foot by 30-foot banner with Wheldon posing with Indy’s Borg-Warner trophy.

Fans were honoring Wheldon long before the banner went up.

One brought a pumpkin with the No. 77 carved into it, the number Wheldon was driving Sunday at Las Vegas. Another placed two green candles on a handwritten note, explaining that the candles represented his two Indy wins. Another added a child’s drawing with a heart colored in crayon with the words “We Love You!”

The most poignant message: “To Dan’s children and their mommy, you are in our thoughts and prayers.”

Garside hung a large Union Jack flag with the words “Brit Corner” emblazoned on the cross of St. George. It dominated the scene at the gate.

“It feels better to have it here than in my garage,” he said.

It’s not the first time a makeshift memorial has popped up around the speedway.

Track historian Donald Davidson said the gate, which has remained in the same location at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road for 102 years, has been the scene of too many other memorials over the years.

But Wheldon, who lived several years full-time in nearby Carmel, Ind., had a special bond with the community.

In 2010, Wheldon convinced three other drivers to fly from the track to Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis, in Blackhawk helicopters. At the time, he was driving the National Guard car. He had also become increasingly affiliated with talking about Alzheimer’s Disease, an affliction his mother was diagnosed with in 2009.

And he was so enamored with Indy, that track officials sometimes joked he was part of their public relations staff.

“I don’t remember a driver, any driver, at any time saying as much about the Indianapolis 500 as Dan did,” Davidson said. “He was constantly talking it up.”

Yet Wheldon remained a down-to-earth, fun-loving guy.

After winning his second 500 earlier this year, speedway spokesman Doug Boles said he was walking behind the Pagoda where posters of each year’s four race winners are encased in glass. When Wheldon saw his photo during the Brickyard 400, he was shocked.

“He said, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ ” Boles said. “It just really surprised him that a picture of him was up, and I had to take a picture of him pointing at the picture of himself. It was like he was 10 years old at Christmas.”

The steady stream of fans who turned out Monday wanted to see Wheldon win a third time.

Instead, they came out to remember the drive they embraced one more time.

Boles said the IndyCar Series is working out details for a public service that fans can attend. GoDaddy.com, which agreed to sponsor Wheldon’s car next year, has announced it will create a website with links to a Facebook page where fans can post thoughts and see a photo retrospective of Wheldon’s career.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

Occupy Oakland: A shrine for USMC vet Scott Olsen

On October 25th, 2011, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Scott Olsen was injured in a conflict with police at the Occupy Oakland movement (a northern California affiliate of Occupy Wall Street).  Shortly thereafter, a shrine was erected to recognize his injury.

Spontaneous shrines are most often erected at the location a person has died.  Especially when the death is of a prominent public figure, the shrines are also often located where the person lived or spent most of her or his time.  For example, in the case of Princess Diana’s death, shrines were erected both near the tunnel in Paris where her car crash occurred and at the palaces of the royal family in the U.K.

Although many death-site shrines are created by family members and close acquaintances of the deceased, certain deaths call for a more participatory or public response.  One of the most fascinating and moving shrines I’ve ever seen was located in Potsdam, Germany following the fatal beating of an Ethiopian-German man.  The attack sparked extreme controversy over post-WWII identity, racism, and neo-Nazism in Germany (more about this shrine to come in a later post).  Particularly when a death is highly controversial or socially unsettling, the resulting shrine tends to be a community affair, rather than being left to the family.  Because the death itself demands a response from the community, the shrine may becomes the forum for that response, allowing people to come together and speak out.

This shrine for Scott Olsen is very interesting for a number of reasons.  News of his injury (he was hit in the face by a “projectile,” possibly a tear gas canister) went viral almost immediately.  His status as a USMC veteran of the Iraq War makes his injury a potentially controversial issue.  Not only does it bring to light the occasionally violent outcomes of the clashes between police and protesters, it also highlights the diversity of the protesters.  His injury was taken up by certain protesters as a poster case of police violence– not only are people getting hurt, veterans are getting hurt.  Others not  involved with the protests have branded his injury an unfortunate outcome of anti-American activities– he was patriotic, and now he is not, so this is what happens.

The shrine has become one of the rallying spots for the movement in support of Olsen.  There are dozens of votive candles, photos of Olsen, pro-vet posters, and flowers.  One of the unique features is the series of posters calling for people to contribute money to a fund helping to pay for Olsen’s hospital bills.  The shrine is not for a death, but for a life, perhaps not even so much for a person, but for an event, for an injury…

Several videos of the shrine have been posted on youtube, photos of the shrine have appeared on several tumblr and flickr feeds, and the incident has been featured in the headlines of numerous papers including the Washington Post, the U.K. paper The Guardian, and the Huffington Post.  There are several Scott Olsen Facebook pages including Scott OlsenWe are all Scott Olsen, and For Scott Olsen.

Talking back to the shrines

There is one issue I’ve been considering quite a bit since starting this project.  I’m wondering how best to contact people who have created the shrines.  The last shrine I wrote about, to the person called “A,” poses a particular challenge.

The people who made the shrine left 2 pens on top of the box and taped a blank sheet of paper above it, presumably for anyone to write a note for “A.” Part of me is very hesitant to write something on the paper that is not a “in memory of…” comment. However, because the pens are an invitation to participate in creating the shrine, part of me thinks it would be the perfect opportunity to engage with the memorial in a different way.

Because I recognize the shrine as a sacred space, I do not wish to defile it by writing all over it in a non-memorializing way.  However, it does present itself as a participatory shrine.  I wonder if I should strike a compromise– tape my own piece of paper up near the shrine with contact information, but not actually write on the paper provided as a space to remember “A.”  Another issue I’ve thought about: Does my simply taking a photograph of it use the shrine in the same way that writing a note to its creators would?

It’s tricky…and one of the challenges of getting in touch with people who build these memorials.  How must a person coming in from the outside interact with these sacred spaces respectfully?

Sacred space or public place?

MOJAVE DESERT: Replacement cross removed from rock

Morongo Bill’s Back Porch/Contributed Image
A new cross has been placed at the embattled Mojave Cross site.



dbegley@pe.com; rdeatley@pe.com

Published: 15 November 2011 10:56 AM

Federal rangers on Tuesday removed a cross erected on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert east of Baker, the same location where an earlier cross was taken down in a legal battle over whether a religious symbol should be allowed on public land.

Bill McDonald, who blogs about Mojave issues under the name Morongo Bill, said he spotted the cross Monday as he was preparing to take a hike that begins about 100 yards from Sunrise Rock. The spot is about 10 miles south of Interstate 15 near Cima Road.

“I actually parked at the Teutonia Peak trailhead,” McDonald said, “and I looked and thought, ‘Holy —-, there is a cross there!’”

In compliance with a court order that led to the removal of the original Mojave Cross – placed on the rock in 1934 to honor soldiers who died in World War I – the replacement will be removed, said Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the Mojave National Preserve, which is managed by the National Park Service.

 Slater said park service police will investigate who erected the replacement cross and decide whether a crime was committed.

“You can’t go putting things up in national parks,” Slater said.

The new cross, along with one removed from Sunrise Rock last year, will be stored as evidence at a park service building in Barstow. Officials are keeping the items until a resolution is reached in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued in 2001 on behalf of Frank Buono, a former assistant superintendent at the Mojave National Preserve who claimed the cross was a governmental endorsement of religion.

Cross proponents say the memorial is meant not as a religious symbol but as a memorial to those who gave their lives for the country.

Under a 2004 land swap engineered by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, a single acre of land on which the cross long stood would become property of the Veterans for Foreign Wars. In return, five acres of privately held land elsewhere in the Mojave preserve would be donated to the government.

In 2007, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the land swap didn’t solve the problem, concluding that merely “carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast preserve – like a donut hole with the cross atop it – will do nothing to minimize the impermissible governmental endorsement” of a religious symbol.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling last year.

“Although certainly a Christian symbol, the cross was not emplaced on Sunrise Rock to promote a Christian message,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the lead opinion.

The Department of Justice and ACLU are attempting to negotiate a settlement, said Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin on Tuesday granted a 90-day extension to settle the matter by February.

As the courts batted the case back and forth, the original cross – which the park service had covered with a wooden box – was stolen last year. Someone replaced it with a replica a week later. The cross that showed up this week is evidence that someone is serous about keeping the monument, McDonald said.

How do you feel about the removal of a cross erected on federal land in the Mojave Desert?
Toss the cross. It’s on federal land and a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
The cross should remain – it’s a tribute to World War I veterans, not a religious symbol
Keep the cross. Who’s it hurting, anyway?
I’m not sure. Let’s wait for the courts to settle the matter.

A shrine for “A”

While walking around Manhattan’s Upper West Side this evening, I happened to pass a recently-erected shrine.  It’s located on the sidewalk on the south side of the street next to a brick and concrete apartment building.  The shrine is quite small and not particularly elaborate.  It comprises a cardboard box, some candles, a vase with flowers, and two handwritten signs that begin with “RIP  A”.

Although I have been concentrating on roadside shrines, and this is technically beside a road, this shrine made me think about a few things I hadn’t really considered before.  I realized, as I looked at this memorial, that I couldn’t tell if it marks the place where “A” died, or if it is located there because that is the apartment building in which “A” had lived.  I suppose it could also be both.  When shrines are erected next to highways, especially on dangerous stretches of road, they are usually placed as near as possible to the precise death site of the person they are for.  However, I’m finding that in cities it is often much more difficult to tell at first glance why a memorial is in a particular place.  Without speaking to the person who erected this shrine to “A,” I can’t know the significance of its location.

I’m left wondering why I’m wondering at all about the importance of that spot on the sidewalk.  There is something discombobulating about recognizing a space as sacred but not understanding immediately why the space is sacred.  How does knowing the story of that sidewalk [or highway] impact the person passing by?  Why is knowing the story important?  Why is it unsettling to not know what happened there?

One final thought for tonight about this shrine.  I notice that the date of death is November 11, 2010.  This shrine was just erected this week (it has never been there when I’ve passed by before).  I’ve seen instances of people bringing new offerings to a shrine on the anniversary of a person’s death, but I’m curious about the motivation to build a new shrine to commemorate the anniversary.  Does that in any way alter the shrine’s function?  Purpose?  Spontaneity?  Any thoughts?

Sacred space and the ‘altar-ed’ landscape

A space becomes sacred when it has undergone certain changes that imbue it with a particular type of meaning.  With regard to spontaneous shrines, there is a “conquest of space” that occurs—one that involves a “politics of property”—to carve out a ritual space with distinct boundaries from an ordinary space (Chidester & Linenthal, 8).  This new space, through the embodiment of death, confronts the idea of the normal landscape and helps to create and locate a new narrative of place, space, and memory.

In the case of a death site shrine, the death of a person in a particular place marks that space as distinct from other spaces around it.  That is the space where death occurred.  “[L]andscape is a work of the mind.  Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock,” (Schama, 7).  The act of a person dying—being killed—in a place may not physically mark it (though it may, with visible traces such as blood or skid marks), but it does mark it in the consciousnesses of the people connected to that death, such as the family, friends, and perpetrator (if one exists).  From the moment of death onward, that place is no longer a place without meaning—a place one can pass without stopping.  It becomes a marked place, a bounded place, a site of death.

For an acquaintance, the site of a loved one’s death may take on a very particular importance.  It is not only the place where their loved one died, but the last place their loved one lived.  It is the last place of connection one has with the deceased—the place the deceased left the earth, or the point of departure.  This is of particular importance when looking at the communicative and ritual aspects of the shrine.  As the last place of life, the site of death becomes the most direct conduit between the living and the dead—a place where unhindered exchange is possible, especially during the liminal time between death and burial.

Thus the family, specifically, becomes tied to the place by way of the deceased.  The footprint, the last breath, the blood in the soil grounds the dead to the site of death—and the family as well.  To recognize the death site as one’s own(ed) space is to initiate the transition of the site from ordinary to sacred space.  In staking a claim, one asserts that the space is unique, important, desirable, and worthy of ownership.  If the claim is challenged or contested by another, say, the municipality (public versus private space), the sacred nature of the site is only re-affirmed, (Chidester & Linenthal, 8).  This is what is meant by the “politics of property”—that the desire to own, control, or maintain bestows a certain importance on an otherwise ordinary place.

The importance of boundaries is paramount to the creation of sacred space.  Sacred places may be bounded by space, natural or artificial boundaries, or the extent of sights and sounds.  At the site of a shrine, not only is the space physically marked in contrast to the surrounding area, it is also meant to be seen as being of and/or for a specific person.  This demarcation lends itself to the performative function of a shrine, in making a death personal.  By putting a name, a face, and personal information to a tragedy, the shrine calls for individual and direct recognition of the event.  I’ll come back to this idea of the performative nature of shrines later, but with regard to the sacrality of the space, it must be noted that the space is recognized not only by a decoration or as a memorial to a particular person, but by what it is not memorializing.  The space is sacred because it is apart; it is not an ordinary place, but one that has been made special by a particular happening.  It is not every other place and is not for every other similar tragedy.  It is individual and demands recognition and, as a result, calls for different treatment than other spaces.

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