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

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?

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2 thoughts on “A shrine for “A”

  1. Would leaving a note with your email or phone number at the shrine (so as to answer the questions) descecrate the shrine? Thank you for your work – I’m fascinated by the subject and look forward to your future published work.

    I lost my beloved sister Kellie in 1987 (cancer, age 29) and had often wished we could have erected some type of permanent shrine (other than where she is buried)

  2. First of all, I’m very sorry to hear about your sister Kellie. I’m wondering if you have considered setting up some type of anniversary shrine for her– would that be meaningful for you? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about that type of memorial.

    Thank you for your question about leaving contact information at the shrine. That’s something I’ve been wondering about as well. I’m not sure if it’s visible in the photo but the people who made the shrine did leave 2 pens on top of the box and taped a blank sheet of paper above it, presumable 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. Perhaps a compromise–tape my own piece of paper with a greeting and an invitation to tell their story. What do you think?

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