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

Welcome to the world of spontaneous shrines!

From curbs in residential areas to remote country highways—from treacherous mountain faces in national parks to sites of political violence, spontaneous shrines are everywhere!

They serve a variety of commemorative and performative functions, not the least of which is to provide a space for mourning the unexpected dead.  Though they are often referred to as makeshift or temporary memorials, I do not believe these creations are haphazard or makeshift, nor are they necessarily temporary.  Although they are part of a greater “memorial culture,” to call them simply memorials is to overlook the sacrality of such a ritual space (I will go into more detail about spontaneous shrines as sacred spaces in my next post!).  For this reason, I usually prefer to use folklorist Jack Santino’s term, “spontaneous shrine,” to describe each of these.  They are spontaneous insofar as the creation of them is not prescribed, is not predictable, and is not necessarily performed by any specific person.

In instances of death under “morally questionable” circumstances (such as hate crimes) or in certain socio-political climates, spontaneous shrines are often used as spaces for protest.  The site of death of an individual becomes a place for remembering, re-visiting, and often re-claiming the deaths of others.  It becomes a place where an individual death may stand in protest for a cause.

Quite recently, a number of shrines have popped up in the news.  Most notably, after the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on October 5th, several spontaneous shrines were erected outside of Apple stores across the country.

Additionally, the past two days (November 1st–All Saints’ Day and November 2nd–All Souls’ Day) brought the festival of Dia de los Muertos, or the Mexican Day of the Dead.  A key part of this celebration is the building of altarcitos, or personal altars for people who have died.

So, if you’ve ever seen a Day of the Dead celebration, been to an Apple store in the month of October, or driven down a US Highway, you’ve probably seen a spontaneous shrine!

In this blog, I’ll not only be searching for the personal narratives behind the shrines, but I’ll be exploring the ways in which they influence, enhance, and collide with the communities they are in.  I’ll be talking to the people who build shrines, drive by shrines, take down shrines, and more.

I hope you’ll find these stories as interesting and thought-provoking as I do.  Thanks for reading and please check back soon!

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2 thoughts on “Welcome to the world of spontaneous shrines!

  1. Something I find intriguing are shrines in locations where it’s possible no one will find them. Are they a kind of secret shrine?

  2. Great question– let me think about that and I’ll get back to you. Thanks for asking!

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