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

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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4 thoughts on “Sacred space and the ‘altar-ed’ landscape

  1. VL Nyitray on said:

    I’m really thinking now about two aspects of shrines:

    (1) Despite similarities in appearance or in the kinds of mementos left there, every shrine is unique, just like the person whose death it marks. We shouldn’t see a shrine and think, “There’s another one.”

    (2) As “…the last place their loved one lived,” shrines are really powerful spaces that carry traces of a person’s vitality.

    Thanks for getting me to see shrines in these new ways.

    • Thanks for pointing out the uniqueness of each individual shrine. This is very true! While there has been extensive field research done on what kinds of objects are left at what percentage of shrines (ex: teddy bears, flowers, and candles are very common), I think there needs to be more focus on the differences among the shrines. Every teddy bear is not the same, and each teddy bear is special for the person who has died. You bring up a very important point!

  2. I find this post particularly interesting. Something that comes to mind are the differences and similarities between “Death Site” shrines, which tend to be rendered by those personally connected to person(s) memorialized, and shrines which are not erected a particular death site and/or have a more publicized memorial (i.e. the 9-11 Memorial, Strawberry Fields, or shrines outside of Apple stores for Steve Jobs). While both may have similar motivations, they seem to produce different effects on people. I’m excited to learn more about this under-explored topic. Thank you for bringing this to my attention in greater detail.

    Out of curiosity, what is the story behind the photograph posted?


    • Thanks for bringing up that great point about the differences between personal death site shrines (like most roadside memorials) and shrines for more public figures (referred to in the previous post as ‘cult’ shrines). I’ll definitely make sure to cover that in a later post, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that the shrines for public figures often have some aspect of collective social justice (ex: the shrine for Princess Diana brought to light the royal family’s delayed response to her death). This is not always the case, but often so.

      Re: the photo that is above the post–I took it in August 2011 in Lake Elsinore, California. Unfortunately, I was only able to be in the area for a few minutes (just enough time to pull the car over and quickly snap a few photos), but it looked very well maintained so I hope to return to the site and find the people who built the shrine. It’s hard to see in this photo, but the shrine was over 6 feet tall. I was very surprised by its size, which is MUCH larger than the majority of shrines I’ve seen. I’ll post some more photos of the same shrine. Thanks for asking!

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"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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