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.