“Little angels,” cybershrines, and memento mori
Shaniya Darby-Sims, age 4, died yesterday in her apartment outside of Pittsburgh, PA when the 30-inch TV she was trying to rotate fell on top of her. Neighbors set up a makeshift memorial outside of her apartment.
I read about her death on the website of WPXI, a news source from the Pittsburgh area. The news article covers the death of the child, but the accompanying video focuses on the makeshift memorial for her.
The memorial is fairly standard for a child; it has plush toys, balloons, a doll, and votive candles. It is the video itself that I find especially fascinating. Perhaps unwittingly, WPXI constructed a video that perfectly exemplifies (stereo)typical contemporary memorialization of a child.
Vince Sims, the reporter, describes his encounter with Shaniya’s mother:
“I can’t even begin to describe the emotional pain that this mother is feeling. She was too weak and upset to actually go on camera with me but through her tears and through a very weak voice she did tell me what happened inside and shared those pictures of her little angel with me.”
He does not spare listeners any details about the mother–she is weak and crying and we know it many times over. He then refers to Shaniya as a “little angel.” Although these may have been the mother’s words, his choice to use them in his own description is important. Regardless of religion (oddly enough), referring to dead children as “little angels” is a fairly common trend, especially on websites for memorializing stillborn babies and infants who have died–a topic I will return to in a future post. It seems to me that this term is useful in a number of ways. Not only is it a less grim way of saying “dead child,” it implies that the child has gone on to a better place–that we should be sad about the child’s leaving, but not worry about its welfare. It implies that the child is now safe from any harm.
Vince Sims then goes on to say:
“When we went back to Northview Heights today, we saw the neighbors building a memorial…After watching them carefully place the items, I asked them to show me the display and tell me why they wanted to do this.”
The video shows a woman arranging votive candles in a straight line on the steps leading up to the apartment. Sims makes a point of emphasizing the careful placement of the objects at the shrine, which illustrates the shift from normal space to ritual / sacred space. The objects are not thrown together on the steps; they are placed neatly and purposefully. The neighbors respond to Sims by telling him they want to pay their respects to Shaniya’s family and show them that they care about the tragedy and will remember it. The shrine is for the living and to the dead.
Finally, I’d like to point out the contemporary memorialization practices shown in the video. After concluding his interview with the neighbors and telling listeners that the mother is safe and staying with friends, Sims signs out and the video cuts to the anchor who says:
“We’re passing along the messages you’re leaving on our Facebook page.”
It shows a graphic of a Facebook post from Kristin Bergman, a WPXI viewer. She writes:
“What a terrible tragedy. My heart and prayers go out to the little girl and her family and friends…”
It then changes to a graphic of the message from Frannie Fran, another viewer:
“This almost happened to a friend of mine…these new stands nowadays aren’t built to hold the weight of older standard definition tvs”
The newscast and Facebook page work together as a type of spontaneous shrine, I believe. The Facebook page is the gathering place and the newscast serves as a type of extension of the shrine’s space. The anchor refers to the people who posted as “you,” thereby inviting other viewers to leave their messages. While this may be a tactic for getting hits on the Facebook page and engaging the audience, it also invites passersby to stop and look at the memorial. The page is a place where people leave messages of support and sympathy for the family and for the dead — even though they do not know them. Finally, the messages work with the memorial space as a type of memento mori. Frannie Fran’s message tells us all–
Remember, this could happen to you!