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 the living / A shrine for the dead

In light of a thoughtful and insightful comment left for the last post on the shrine for Amy Winehouse, I’m sharing this article I found about a memorial for a crash that happened on Long Island (New York City area)  in October of this year.

The crash killed a mother and her young son and the memorial was established soon after the accident.  Because it was for a mother and child, the majority of offerings left were balloons and stuffed animals (along with the traditional flowers and votive candles).

I do not know who began the shrine, or who contributed offerings to it, but as was pointed out in the article by a police officer who responded–everyone knows families with children and many people have children themselves.  Therefore, an accident of this type, where a mother and her child are killed and two other children are left behind (along with the other family members), touches a particularly sensitive place in one’s heart.

Each and every spontaneous shrine is for an individual person–with a life and loved ones who will miss them dearly.  That is one of the reasons I am interested in covering this topic–because I believe the shrines should not simply be seen as a sea of roadside crosses with no individuality and distinctiveness, but as unique and personal occurrences.   However, I have noticed that when a parent and young child die together, the shrines that emerge are often some of the most ornate and community-created.

To speak to the comment left yesterday, it is important to point out that the shrines are for the living as much as they are for the dead.  They are a space for the living to commune with those they have lost, to continue to share experiences and beloved objects with them, and often to come together with strangers.  A shrine is a place for loved ones to meet and a place to invite passers-by to come and take part in the understanding that comes of shared experience, if not the mourning.

With that, here is the article:

Makeshift Memorial Lines Oceanview Boulevard As Police Continue To Investigate Fatal Manorville Crash

October 11, 2011 8:18 AM
A makeshift memorial marks the site of the fatal Manorville crash (credit: CBS 2)

A makeshift memorial marks the site of the fatal Manorville crash (credit: CBS 2)

MANORVILLE, NY (CBSNewYork) — Police are still investigating a fatal crash on Long Island that killed a woman and her 7-year-old son and sent her two other children to the hospital.

Police say 30-year-old Keri Trinca and her 7-year-old son Jason died in Manorville on Saturday.

Trinca was driving her Honda Accord on Oceanview Boulevard when police say the vehicle was broadsided by a van.

One Suffolk County police sergeant says he knows how badly the family is hurting from their loss.

keri trinca Makeshift Memorial Lines Oceanview Boulevard As Police Continue To Investigate Fatal Manorville Crash Keri Trinca and her son Jason (credit: CBS 2)

“It’s never easy. Something like this is definitely hard,” said detective Sgt. James McGuinness. “We all have children families. This is a terrible thing to have to go through right now.”

A makeshift memorial of balloons and stuffed animals mark the site of the crash.

Trinca’s 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son are at Stony Brook University Medical Center. The driver and passenger of the van weren’t seriously injured.

Police are still trying to figure out which driver was at fault.



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7 thoughts on “A shrine for the living / A shrine for the dead

  1. P. Sakala on said:

    This is so true. Sometimes you see a cross by the side of the road and you just assume it’s another victim of a car crash – a nameless, faceless person lost their life there. Whether their death was a result of an accident that was their own fault or not, you’ll never know. Then you see a shrine with balloons and teddy bears and you have a completely different reaction. You know a child lost their life there. Your heart skips a beat and you feel so sad for a life cut short. You know the child was not at fault – they couldn’t possibly have deserved this. Very sad. Sights of those kind of shrines really stay with me.

  2. Jonathan Lee on said:

    This post brings up a question for me. Are spontaneous shrines memorials? If so, are they “public art”? If they are public art, in what ways are the visual elements art? I’ve been moved by Holocaust memorials in Berlin, the Killing Fields memorial in Cambodia, and the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C., but wonder how much of that is the physical memorial itself and how much of it is the visceral omnipresence of the dead that the memorials evoke in my mind. I’m partial to seeing the spontaneous shrines as public expressions of art, maybe even “living art” as it is not static and changes with votive offerings and passing seasons.

  3. It’s interesting that you cite the Holocaust memorials in Berlin, the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., as they are each a different type of memorial. I’ve never been there, but I believe the Killing Fields memorial you’re referencing might be the Buddhist memorial on the physical site of the mass murder, right? That memorial then would be the place where the blood was spilled, so to speak. The Holocaust memorials in Berlin are a middle ground, of sorts. People were killed in Berlin and they were also deported from that city. However, it was also the ‘center’ of Naziism, so a memorial in the capitol is also quite symbolic. The Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. is not on the site where any soldiers physically died, but its subject matter imbues it with a certain significance. I’m wondering then if the “visceral omnipresence of the dead that the memorials evoke” changes in any way depending on its physical location.

    With most spontaneous shrines (especially roadside shrines), it is the shrine’s location at the place of death–and equally at the place where the person last lived–that is one of the factors in creating its sacred space; it provides the most direct conduit for communing with the dead as they are physically present in the land. I am not quite sure where to go with this yet (but I will definitely keep thinking about it!) but at a place like the Vietnam memorial where the dead are memorialized, but not physically tied by last breath/blood spilled, does the sacrality of the space change? Perhaps not the fact that the space is sacred (I would not dispute that the Wall is a sacred space, especially when thinking in terms of American Civil Religion) but the reasons for the space to be sacred might be different. I’m not sure!

    I believe that shrines can be seen as a form of public art, especially if public art falls under a greater classification of material culture. I guess their classification as such is dependent on who is doing the classifying. For the family, it might not be art, as such, though it is aesthetically pleasing (as ritual spaces usually are). What do you think?

  4. I like the tie-in here to the Vietnam wall Memorial (and also Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial in Atlanta) because I know she did a lot of thinking about these sorts of issues – public memory, claiming space, the way that the memorial would/could INTERACT with those viewing it, and vice versa (ie. the way that those viewing it could INTERACT with it).
    1. public memory – The Vietnam Wall memorial in DC is a very particular gesture – toward a group of soldiers who felt ignored/forgotten/made invisible by their government. To erect the monument in DC was a particular gesture to repair that damage. Now, we may not remember that history, but Vietnam not only garnered so much public critique from anti-war activists, it also generated a deafening silence from the government. Other soldiers were decorated as ‘war heroes’ but Vietnam Vets fell through the national narrative cracks in many ways.
    2. claiming space – the black obsidian wall, stretching out from left to right, claimed public space, it’s reflective surface interacted with viewers in ways that more representational statues just didn’t. It also memorialized the dead by listing their names while simultaneously ‘commenting’ on the volumes of the dead – there are names on names on names on names on that wall – Lin doesn’t let us forget the horror of war in some statue of brave soldiers. People DIED, lots of people, she reminds us. The way the wall curves around also creates a protected space – a sacred space outside of the actual wall itself – where old comrades can meet, families can cry and remember and mourn, where living memorialization can happen in a somewhat protected way.
    3. interaction with viewers – the three dimensional carved names allows viewers to both read and touch the wall – doing tracings, leaving mementos leaning against the wall, and all the while seeing their own reflections in the wall – their living faces intermingling and coexisting with the names of the dead.

    There are some lovely documentaries about Maya Lin’s work on the wall and also on the Civil Rights memorial in DC. She works with such complexity and thought that I think there are tie-ins to your work with spontaneous shrines, Shady – in all 3 arenas above and probably much more…

  5. Jonathan Lee on said:

    Citing Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space I think that space in-itself is not sacred, but rather the social relationships that are embedded in the space that makes it “sacred.” It is the social relationships that the spaces, be they memorials or spontaneous roadside shrines, possess or manifest that make them special. Telling stories about the dead and the events that occurred at the site is a form social relationship that sets this particular space apart from others.

  6. 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, American Sacred Space]. 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 an earlier post on sacred space:

    I tried to cover some of the actions by people that make the space sacred. I completely agree that space is not in itself sacred, but must be sacralized by the people who interact with it. Re: my earlier comments about blood being spilled on a particular space–I think that is one of the physical aspects of a death site that helps to establish a perceived direct conduit to the dead. However, there does have to be someone doing the perceiving. As Simon Schama says in his book Landscape & Memory, “Landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.” It is in this memory, this interaction and attention, that the space is defined as sacred (among other things, such as defining boundaries, purifying the space, etc).

  7. @Sayantani: Thank you for discussing Maya Lin’s construction of the Wall and the interaction of the Wall with the people and vice versa. I will make sure to read more about the Wall. There has been so much scholarship done on that particular topic as it is one of the most contested and beloved memorials in the US. It strikes a very particular chord with people, both for memorializing the vets from a controversial war and because of the sheer physicality of the memorial– as you pointed out it is not just a stone soldier, it is a wall that is an illustration of death.

    @Jonathan: Thank you for bringing up telling stories about the dead. In terms of boundaries and the creation of a sacred space, I believe that those boundaries do not have to be physical, or on land. I believe they can also be boundaries of hearing, smelling (as with incense), and perhaps even tasting. I’d like to explore this further.

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