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

Roadside shrines of North America: The tour without a guide

I came across a website today.  It’s called Memorial Hiway: A tour of North America’s Road Side Memorials.  The main page indicated that the site was created in 2007 with the goal of becoming a comprehensive list of roadside shrines throughout Mexico, the USA, and Canada.  I clicked on several states to see what shrines were listed.  There weren’t any.  There is only one memorial actually covered on the site–a shrine for six young people killed in a 2003 accident on Chilliwack River Road located somewhere in British Columbia.

This is not the first “comprehensive list of shrines” site that I’ve seen.  There are many out there and most have encountered a similar problem, I’m guessing.  Not only do shrines go up and come down in the blink of an eye, but it is very hard to track down the people that build them.  I know that I’ve passed hundreds of shrines in my lifetime, but I can only recall the precise location of a few.  I know even fewer stories about them.  For me, this underscores the personal nature of these public objects.  Although they are meant to be seen by many, they are only fully understood by a few.  While this does seem to homogenize them–by making them appear as easily recognizable occurrences of a common phenomenon [oh, it’s just another roadside shrine, like all the others], it also serves to set each shrine apart from one another [this may look like the shrine you built/passed on the road earlier, but it’s story is unique and unknown to you].

For this reason, I understand why it is very difficult to build a comprehensive list of shrines.  The same people that build one shrine have no connection to the people who build a different shrine.  There is no network of shrine-builders from whom to get information and locations.  Each shrine and each story must be sought out individually, or must be brought forth individually by someone who knows it.  Because there are no definitive parameters for memorialization [more about states’ attempts to regulate shrines to come in a future post], they may stay where they are for years or be taken down in a matter of days.  Unlike a permanent memorial, they come and go sporadically, each telling a different story with or without words.

Although it would make it easy for someone like me who is interested in finding these shrines and their families, I am glad there is no comprehensive list to follow.  Like the people they stand for, the shrines and their builders are unique individuals who, once found and invited, may or may not choose [or be able] to tell their stories.

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