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

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Children killing children: Chardon High School, Columbine, and memorialization of the incomprehensible

Chardon High School

I write about death a lot.  I think about death a lot.  As an EMT, I’ve been trained to deal calmly with pain, suffering, and death.  In the academic world, I often read and write about it as well–war and conflict photography, narrative medicine, spontaneous shrines.  As a result, I’ve taught myself to (somewhat) handle being immersed in such a subject.  I do not take it lightly, by any means, but there is a certain dissociation that happens.  But there are moments when I find myself pausing–often unexpectedly–because I am absolutely  feeling what I am dealing with at that point in time.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I write about shrines.  They pull us out of our normal way of life and force us to face them and think and feel.

Photo from newsnet5.com

There is something particularly troubling about school shootings–perhaps because the idea of a child killing another child (or an adult) is a practically incomprehensible act.  I was in middle school when the shootings happened at Columbine High School.  That was the act that, unfortunately, seemed to usher in the age of school shootings.  It had been done once (and was made very public, especially by the media), so it could be done again.

When the shooting happened two days ago at Chardon High School, a Cleveland, OH suburb, I wondered if there would be a makeshift memorial–since there were no initial casualties.  It was several hours after the shooting and after the first death of a student had been announced that photographs of the small memorial began making their way onto the internet.  Perhaps the shrine was started earlier; I do not know.  But, it did not become a focus until after a fatality.  [Interestingly, on one website, the photograph that accompanied the identification of the first victim was not of the Chardon shrine, but of one for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords–a shrine photo was needed and would be seen as a notice of death, so one was substituted for the other, perhaps?  It could also have just been an honest, albeit unfortunate, mistake.]  To speak briefly about the shrine at Chardon–it was constructed around the sign at the front of the school, a natural location as it is accessible to everyone in the way that the cafeteria (the location of the shooting) may not have been.  It is also a highly visible place.  Inside a lunchroom is not.  Many of the objects left around the shrine are red and white, which are the school’s colors.

When an event as difficult to understand as a school shooting occurs, it can be challenging to start a conversation about what happened and why it happened.  After the disbelief and shock pass, the discussion begins.  Discussions need focal points and those are often the shrines.  I do not want to conflate the shooting at Chardon with the shooting at Columbine as they are separate events, and should not be thrown together carelessly.  However, the shrine that was built at Columbine was one of the most controversial focal points I have ever encountered.  Because of that, I think it has a place in this post.

Columbine High School

What is the difference between this photograph:

Photo from acolumbinesite.com

and this photograph?:

Photo from acolumbinesite.com

The first photograph shows 15 crosses in Clement Park while the second only shows 13 crosses.  Why?  This is where the controversy comes in.  It begins with a man who drives miles and miles to erect shrines for people who have died.  His name is Greg Zanis.

Photo from acolumbinesite.com

Following the shooting at Columbine, Greg Zanis drove all through the night to a place called Clement Park in Littleton, Colorado–a highly visible hill near the high school–to erect 15 crosses he had made by hand with his son.  The 15 crosses were for the 13 people who were shot…and for the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Zanis recognized that he should do something to set the two crosses for Klebold and Harris apart from the other 13, so he wrote their names in a different style from the names on the other crosses.  Rather than a more elegant, flowing style, he used edgy Greek-style lettering.  The next day, when people saw the crosses, they recognized them as a space for memorializing the tragedy.  People congregated around 13 of the crosses, leaving flowers, teddy bears, and candles.  At two of the crosses, many people didn’t seem to know what to do.  A few left flowers, some defaced the cross by etching scathing messages into the wood, and at least one tacked up a piece of paper with Bible quotes about sin and sinners.

Photo from acolumbinesite.com

After a while, and against the wishes of Zanis, the crosses for Klebold and Harris were taken down.  Today, at the permanent memorial for Columbine, there are only 13 crosses.

Why was there so much animosity toward the two crosses for the shooters?  They also died that day, after all.  I believe it is because the crosses were the first tangible things that represented what happened.  They literally and figuratively grounded the incomprehensible event.  When shrines are erected, they embody the event.  People can touch them, talk to them, leave objects at them, and in cases like Columbine, deface them and get angry at them.  This does not negate the sacrality of the space, in my opinion.  Because the space of those two crosses is sacred and carved out from normal space, although people dislike them, they still see and respect them as the embodiment of the tragedy and of the people they memorialize.  The shrines do their job effectively, but rather than being a place of comfort, they become a place of discontent.  Personally, I do think it is unfortunate that the crosses were taken down, but it is also a testament to their efficacy.

The importance of making an event tangible is it allows for a moving forward.  When an event is incomprehensible, there is nothing that can be done about it or to it.  It is too terrible to comprehend and to understand, so it cannot be challenged nor can it be prevented.  Through grassroots memorialization, a conversation can begin.  While it may take ugly turns at times, there is the possibility of confronting the circumstances that lead to that type of event–with the hope of not allowing it to happen again.

Photo from newsnet5.com

Albion Street – A poem and a place of death

“On 2nd February 2009 at 11pm, 16 year old Andrew Bornen was handcuffed by police and left lying face down on Albion St, Brassall. He was subsequently hit by a car driven by a young woman who failed to see the police try to flag her down. He later died of head injuries in the Ipswich Hospital.”

This is the postscript to Brett Dionysis’ poem, “Albion Street,” which is dedicated to Bornen.  Dionysis, a grammar school teacher from Ipswich, UK, won several awards in the 2011 Ipswich Poetry Feast, including first prize for “Albion Street.”  He writes about tragedy and loss in his English hometown, visiting makeshift memorials around the community as inspiration for his poems.  I wanted to share this quote from the article, “How tragedy inspired poetry,” followed by the poem itself.  In a way, Dionysis’ poems stand as extensions of the shrines–they carry the memory of the dead beyond the death itself.  They catch our attention and force us momentarily to consider an individual life and the implications of a tragic death.

“I believe that writers should explore their sense of place, and a part of that is the tragic sense of place, which is sometimes not covered.”

Mr Dionysius said his latest poems tried to “make sense of the insensible; of senseless acts that occur in utterly tragic circumstances”.

“It’s not that Ipswich has a tragic history, it’s just that I’m drawn to trying to make sense of parts of life,” he said.

Mr Dionysius said he was personally affected by the death of Mr Bornen on Albion St, as he lived near the scene in a “tight-knit community”.

“I remember the night that it happened, we heard the sirens pass our house,” Mr Dionysius said.

“It affected a lot of people, and the effect rippled out into the Ipswich community.”

Mr Dionysius said his Albion Street poem explored the event from the perspective of the natural environment and place, with monuments and statues being a major theme.

“In some cultures, battle and loss sites become sacred, and we’ve become obsessed with monuments ourselves,” he said.

Brett Dionysis at the makeshift memorial for Andrew Bornen. Photo by Claudia Baxter.

Albion Street 

by Brett Dionysius
Woodend, Qld

For Andrew Bornen

The bitumen was a blue scab short-healed & sticky
Where its edges had been picked at by cars & trucks
That gained bodily pleasure from teasing out its pain.
Its crusted lip was infected & boiled, as the Ipswich
Heat sank its knee into the road’s soft, navy groin.
A bridge pulled like a stitch across the Bremer’s tan
Cut, traffic laced over it & tied off the river’s deep
Wound. A monument bled brass words on the wet
Crossings’ historical news; a white pyramid, it stood
As memory’s speed hump, something to slow down.
Light fled the scene without telling anyone as night
Injected itself into the squabble; a scheduled painkiller
That cooled the hot sweat & turned the road to bruise.
Rainbow lorikeets spewed out the animals’ white noise.

The bitumen gave a bit as he stepped onto it; like boys
Poking their fingers into a mother’s set jelly & bending
Matter. The road had sunk into an abyss of cobalt &
Wobbled under his bare feet as he took centre stage.
A breeze enveloped him in its fluid net & he looked
Towards the river, tracing the road’s curvature until
He spotted, just after the bridge, a giant’s white tooth
Cemented into the ground. The Bremer, a soggy mouth
Sucked in all sound, so he didn’t hear the night’s repeat
Command; to lie down in its arms. Fruit bats formed
A furry vortex as homogenous dusk moved in & draped
Its black wing over him. They picked him up clearly, as
Their radar signals bounced harmlessly from his head.
Headlights spotted him & they gave him up for dead.

With the switch of a torch they transformed him into lead.
He spotlight froze in the backyard at night, where possums
Sucked him in with the pitch-black bathplugs of their eyes.
These men were trees to him. Pouches full of institution.
He fell into the sapphire road’s slick embrace as his body
Ripped its park brake & he jack knifed to a stop. His lips
Smeared some rouge on the bitumen’s blue shirt, he swore
They had filled his lungs with concrete, all he could get was
A squelchy breath. His muscles ran their instant marathon.
They tagged him with steel bracelets, & supported a cause
No one else could appreciate, charity having fled back into
Pandora’s Box to tape her sore wrists up. Time out of joint.
Like water-birds blind at night, they trailed a broken wing
To distract the hunter, who suddenly burst in on the thing.

Nothing is as frightening as the telephone’s midnight ring.
Sound will take you, if you stop & listen to it. Voices rise
& fall like a sleeper’s automatic chest or a kestrel’s clawed
Collapse, when breath-quiet, a mouse never hears its death.
The azure bitumen was oddly comfortable, like in the school
Playground when, big lunch perched, he would eat as if there
Were no tomorrow. It could be warm as any beach, or stretch
Like old chewing gum, but here, right now it only cradled him
A father’s pumped arms, a mother’s pliant breast, it stood in for
The care of atoms & earthly stuff. He was touched at the last.
He was a fallen statue carved from sixteen years of love, that
One small blemish kept from calling a masterpiece. He knew
That a giant’s tooth could chip, as the road’s indigo cloak
Engulfed him. He never listened to the chisel’s final stroke.

On 2nd February 2009 at 11pm, 16 year old Andrew Bornen was handcuffed by police and left lying face down on Albion St, Brassall. He was subsequently hit by a car driven by a young woman who failed to see the police try to flag her down. He later died of head injuries in the Ipswich Hospital.

Where They Left — Roadside Memorials & Descansos

I found this video on youtube posted by user ‘bridgesoflosangeles’.  It is a series of photographs of roadside memorials in Los Angeles, California with the song “Corre, Rio, Corre” by David Lanz in the background.  I’ve come across several amateur videos featuring shrines and soothing or sorrowful music.  What interested me about this one was the written blurb beneath the video:

“The Mexican tradition of the road side memorial – or “Descanso” – has spread to Los Angeles County. It is common to see these home made alters at the spot where someone died, usually in an automobile accident but for other reasons as well. They are of course sad but they are also symbols of love. For me, they are a kind of home made folk art, something assembled with a passion and power beyond the limits of the materials used. They are on a road from sadness to healing.”

‘bridgesoflosangeles’ describes spontaneous shrines as a type of folk art, stemming from the Mexican tradition of descansos.  I like the fact that this video locates itself in a particular time and place.  The photographs featured in the video excellently portray some of the characteristics typical of California shrines.  As a native Californian, these are the types of shrines I grew up passing frequently on the roadsides.  Many of them are constructed by and for Mexican Catholics and often have devotional candles for patron saints.  Keep an eye out for these tall, glass candles as you watch the video!

4 months of blogging, memento mori, and what other people are saying about shrines!

It’s been about 4 months since I started writing this blog about spontaneous shrines, and I’ve learned a lot in the process!  I didn’t really know much about blogging (at all) before I started and I can tell there’s still more to learn.  What with the holidays, getting back into the groove of life after finishing my Master’s thesis and grad school, and catching the annual winter cold, I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like.  But– my New Year’s Resolution (Chinese New Year since it’s closer than the January 1st one) is to throw myself back into the world of shrines!

As a blogger, especially about a topic like shrines which is very “grassrootsy,” I find it really helpful to read up on what other people are saying about the subject.  It helps me understand these memorials better when I can read what different types of people think when they happen to pass one.  From now on, I’ll be re-posting some of the entries I’ve read from other bloggers.  In their own words, they can tell you what their reactions are to these small yet powerful memorials.

I came across this 2008 post by blogger Quinn McDonald.  Quinn points out the ways in which shrines function as memento mori, which means roughly “remember that you will die” or “remember your mortality.”  I’m interested in the point Quinn makes about the crosses–the obvious shrines–making passersby uncomfortable.  Here is an excerpt from the post:

“Roadside shrines are outlawed in some states–considered a danger, a nuisance, a distraction. I’ve seen the markers encouraged by the state–blue squares that look like parking signs, with small writing. You drive past, not looking, not thinking. Those signs that are easy to ignore don’t make us uncomfortable. The roadside crosses do. They stand in mute reminder that we can die at any time, at any place, even in a straight stretch of road on a sunny day.

I like the mystery of it, the unanswered questions, the symbols of love. It creates a small well of wonder, into which we dip our cup of curiosity and come away tasting only uncertainty. We need those shrines to remind us of the frailty of life. I bet those crosses make more people drive carefully for a few minutes than a discreet road marker. The road marker says. . .something. The cross says, “I died unexpectedly, you can too.” It’s a powerful message.”

Thanks for reading everyone!  If there are any shrines or posts you’d like me to share on this site, feel free to contact me and let me know.

Music as Memorial in Jim Fox’s “Descansos, Past”

I recently came across a Music From Other Minds interview with composer Jim Fox about his album entitled Descansos, Past.  The entire interview, which was conducted via email, can be read here.

Fox begins his written interview:  “As mentioned in the CD’s single sentence of liner note, the piece was written “in memorium” for a friend, John Kuhlman, who took his own life in 1996.”  I find it interesting that Fox chose to use only a single “in memorium” sentence for the liner notes.  Liner notes are often extensive pieces that go into detail about the artist(s), composition(s), lyrics (if there are any), “thank you”s, etc…  In terms of CDs, it is rare to come across a recording with such minimal explanation.  However, if one is thinking of this piece as a memorial, it is not so unexpected.  Shrines, also called descansos, are often dedicated with only a few words– the deceased’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a short personal message.

Fox goes on to explain his use of the term descansos in the title:

“”Descansos” are little roadside memorials that one commonly finds throughout the Southwest, marking the spot where someone died. They may be simple (just a cross or wreath) or ornate (a small shrine), and are a recognized form of Mexican-influenced folk art. The word itself means “rest,” and I have encountered two prevailing stories as to its roadside-memorial use. The first suggests that the idea arrived from Europe with the Conquistadors, who marked the death of one of their own with a small marker, usually a cross, referred to as a “descansos,” at the spot along the road where a person died–that individual’s final “resting place.” This story rings true to me. The second story seems a less-reasonable explanation: The markers originally marked the spots where pallbearers carrying a coffin to the graveyard would stop to “rest” during their journey. Tied to this story is another that relates the markers and pallbearers’ journey to the Catholic Church’s “Stations of the Cross” concept. In short, I believe the simple marker where a traveler (or anyone on a road or roadside) fell/died, dating from the time of the earliest European conquest of the Americas, is the most reasonable “descansos” history, and in agreement with present usage.

Perhaps I should point out here that in my use of “descansos” I dissociate the word from all particular religious meaning. I’m not a religious person in any sense whatsoever, but I find fascinating the ways that man has throughout history thought about and commemorated death, his own and those of his friends and enemies. And I feel a certain yet amorphous “resonance,” which I suspect most of us do, when strolling old cemeteries and battlefields and other places where death and life coincide directly. Perhaps this is tied to the simple sense that we’re all headed into inevitable oblivion, and for the moment we pause with that thought, we share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”

One of the often controversial aspects of roadside shrines is the obvious use of religious objects and symbolism.  In the debate over shrines and public vs. private space, allowing a religious symbol to stand on public land is a definite point of controversy.  Fox seems to suggest that although descansos have a religious history, they are recognized–along the roadside–as more than just religious symbols.  They are recognized as places of death.  They are places where people may “share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”  It is this coming together of the living and the dead–this point of crossing boundaries–this liminal space, that make spontaneous shrines such complex entities.  Therefore, I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that someone who does not consider himself a religious person should choose to use a musical descanso to commemorate a lost friend.

Although Fox’s piece of music is not typical, I believe it nonetheless should be considered a shrine, of sorts.  It is for a particular person, was constructed specifically for that person (“in memorium”), and is meant to not only commemorate but to call attention to this death.  It calls for a pause– to remember and to think and in this case, also to listen.

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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


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