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

Shrines and Ritual

A ritual is a repeatedly performed action with particular attributes. Rituals are efficacious; they help one achieve desired results. They are aesthetically pleasing so as to respectfully and non-chaotically support the performance. Rituals are orderly. Even if there is no exact order in which to perform certain actions, they are orderly in the sense that they are not disorganized. They are done deliberately and carefully, not haphazardly. They are cooperative—with participants working alongside one another to perform the ritual as smoothly as possible. When a ritual is performed by a single person, it is done in a cooperative manner with respect to any other person who may have come before them, will follow them, or with respect to that for which the ritual is being performed. Finally, rituals are magical. They compel people to act in a way they would not usually act, which sets the ritual apart from everyday behavior, (Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred).

Space and place, and purity and pollution are factors to be considered with regard to the importance of correct performance of ritual. There are two main kinds of rituals performed around spontaneous shrines, both of which recognize and defer to the sacrality of the site. The first is the ritual of creating the shrine and the subsequent visitation and maintenance by acquaintances of the deceased. This is the ritual of familiarity, so to speak, as the people performing the ritual have a personal connection to the ones they are mourning.

Shrines are most commonly put together as soon as possible following the death. As respect for space and place are key to correct performance, the shrine is located as close as possible to the actual place of death, even if the location is dangerous to access. There is usually a large grounding piece, often a cross, constructed from material gathered at the site (such as wood in a natural setting or a piece of the vehicle in the case of an road accident) or at home from metal, plastic, or wood. The name of the deceased and the birth and death dates or a short message are frequently written on this piece.

Carefully chosen offerings are then attractively arranged around the central piece. The offerings are very different from those found at other places of mourning, such as cemeteries. “[S]pontaneous shrines, because they are vernacular and thus outside the social conventions that govern formal religious observances such as funerals, contain infinitely more than flowers, candles, rosaries, and crosses,” (Grider, in Death and Religion in a Changing World). It is common to find such “idiosyncratic offerings” as bottles of beer and cartons of cigarettes at shrines. For a sacred site to be conducive to efficacious ritual, it must remain pure and unpolluted. While cans of Budweiser and cheap cigarettes could be considered highly polluting and rather inappropriate or tacky in traditional settings, such as funerals or in cemeteries, the communicative nature of spontaneous shrines allows for much more personalized offerings. “The artifact assemblages are sacred by virtue of the actions and intentions of the people who create and tend to them,” (Grider). As the shrines are most often constructed within the temporal boundaries of death and burial, I would argue they are able to serve as relatively open conduits between the living and the dead.

Through the performance of ritual and the providing of comfort via favorite food/beer/cigarettes, the bereaved are able to care for the dead, along with themselves—through feeling useful, during this liminal period. “The burial ritual is soothing in that it commits the dead to the world of the dead and thereby confirms the deceased’s status, while at the same time it confirms the bereaved’s status as belonging to this life,” (Westgaard, in Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death). Before this definitive closure takes place, both the living and the dead must go through what Gerard van Gennep terms a “rite of passage.”. One stage of this passage is the time of being “betwixt and between”; that is when the conduit is open. As there is only a short window during which direct caring might take place, I therefore believe it would be more polluting to offer generic items rather than highly personalized ones. Finally, the very act of claiming the site polluted by death and creating a pure shrine to the deceased, works to cleanse the conduit between living and dead leaving it open for communication and care.

The second type of ritual is the viewing and visiting of the site by strangers—by people with no connection whatsoever to the deceased. This may take place soon after the death occurs, but often continues to happen for some time—sometimes years—after. This ritual is very different from the aforementioned ritual of familiarity, which is performed by the bereaved to achieve some type of result. The relationship between a passerby and a shrine at first seems tenuous, but I believe it is in truth, quite powerful. Not only does the visitor perform a type of ritual in the encounter with the shrine, but also the shrine itself becomes a self-sustaining ritual place. For example, roadside shrines in particular are often located on dangerous stretches of highway where accidents are likely to occur. The simple act of a driver seeing a shrine allows the shrine to act as a message, of sorts. It puts the personal face on the dangerous road. It says, be careful, someone died right here, on this road, where you are driving. It is eye-catching (which can also be dangerous), and calls attention to danger in the way a “Caution!” sign cannot.

For the driver, the shrine acts as a kind of memento mori—a reminder that death could be—and has been—just around the next bend.

The other type of stranger-ritual is performed by passersby who stop or change course specifically to experience the shrine up close. Despite the fact that shrines are often located in sparsely populated areas and they often have at least one offering of minimal value (be it a teddy bear or an entire carton of cigarettes), they are rarely vandalized. Rather, the visitor is cooperative, does not interfere with the aesthetic, and does not behave in any way contrary to the orderliness expected of them. To vandalize a shrine would be to pollute a sacred space with impure intentions and actions. However, the strangers who come into contact with the shrines have no personal connection to the deceased or to the living who constructed it. What makes a spontaneous shrine something not to be tampered with? Why is it seemingly understood that there is just something wrong about disturbing a shrine? What gives the shrine its magical ability to make people act in a way they ordinarily would not?

I look to Pierre Bordieu’s work on the habitus as a possible explanation. He suggests in Outline of a Theory of Practice that the habitus, or environment, in which people exist on a daily basis, is not necessarily created by those who live in it. Previously, it had been thought that humans were the only catalysts within their environments—that no other entities were capable of initially influencing the human existence apart from humans. Bordieu suggests that the materials and objects that comprise that environment actually influence people who in turn project their preconceptions and understandings onto similar objects and materials they later see, (1977, p. 72- 95). Spontaneous shrines are part of a larger material culture of grief. They resemble other commemorative memorials and markers of so-called hallowed ground.

With regard to the spontaneous shrines found in the United States–as part of the American material-memorial landscape, I believe they might function as personal practices and expressions of American civil religion. Americans are taught to treat the symbols and monuments of civil religion (the Vietnam War Memorial, Civil War battlefields, the USS Arizona, Shanksville, PA) as sacred spaces—deserving of the utmost respect (Doss, Memorial Mania). Thus, the similar, if smaller, space of a spontaneous shrine signals the same behavior as a larger memorial. The material landscape directly shapes a person’s response to public space.  I am also led to wonder if this is why there is frequently a very lax legal stance taken on spontaneous shrines. Though they are illegal in many states, they are rarely removed unless they pose a severe hazard.


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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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