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

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

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

4 thoughts on “Children killing children: Chardon High School, Columbine, and memorialization of the incomprehensible

  1. Hello Shady Grove,

    Your blog very interesting to me as I’ve been visiting and photographing roadside memorials for several years. Recently there seems to be more controversy surrounding the memorials with claims that they are distracting or that they are constructed to promote religion rather than to memorialize lost loved ones. I don’t find either argument very convincing. I do believe that many family members or close friends of those lost suddenly and without warning, find the process of creating memorials beneficial – allowing them some small measure of control and purpose, at a time when their world seems to be spinning out of control.

  2. Thanks for your lovely comment. I agree with you–the shrines are as much for the living as they are for the dead. They serve as a unique conduit between the living and dead and allow for communication, healing, and an outward statement of protest against the forces that caused the death (drunk driving, etc). There does seem to be a lot of controversy about the shrines nowadays. Many states have begun to ban them or replace them with homogeneous signs and markers which take away the personal and unique nature of shrines, which is unfortunate. Your photos of memorials are wonderful! Thanks for finding me– I look forward to hearing more from you and seeing more of your work, as well.

  3. People get really weird about death, but it is part of our lives, and as a historian it is what we do all the time. It is the details, the exceptions, the little human oddities that help us deal with it that make us stop in our tracks and value what we have and what others have lost. This is a great blog, and a very brave one, writing about the unspeakable. Thanks for this.

  4. This is really fascinating, You’re an excessively skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and sit up for in search of extra of your great post. Also, I have shared your site in my social networks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

RAD RELIGION

Charting the borderlands between religion and pop culture

Cemeteries and Cemetery Symbols

Exploring the meaning of cemetery symbols and other graveyard mysteries. For genealogy sleuths, taphophiles and goth kids.

Miss Tanya Jean

Just a girl and her superlative words.

The Object Ethnography Project

Creative Experiments in Critical Practice: Art, Anthropology, and Economy

PAMYUA

blog

Rousing Departures

'Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.' – Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, 1930.

The Mouth of The Kenai

The Mouth of The Kenai

Looking at the West

Photographs by Andrew McAllister

Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies

in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States

The Lonely Walkers Blog

Challenging the idea of distance

Psychobabble

I eat cheese, I run from zombies, and I do therapy

quantumnight

Just another WordPress.com site

Death Be Not Proud

American deathways exlored

Animitas, Grutas, or Roadside Shrines

A Site Celebrating The Tragic Beauty Of Latin America's Highway Monuments

Next Gen Memorials

Ideas for planning a funeral, memorial or celebration of life

War Memorials Archive Blog

Features and news about war memorials in the UK

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

KitschEncounters...

...of the one of a kind

%d bloggers like this: