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 tag “material culture”

Washed away by the rain – street chalking and ephemeral memorials, Part 1

A colleague of mine from Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, Gillian Graham, sent me the following photos earlier this year:

 

–and a close-up of the chalking–

 

 

She also sent this explanation:

“So this popped up on the corner of 173rd/Haven Ave in NYC last week. I saw it in progress; I saw a woman find out for the first time that this woman had died through this shrine (she grew up with her), and then the next day it was washed out by a rainstorm.”

This New York City shrine is the perfect example of an ephemeral memorial.  I sometimes use the terms makeshift memorial/ephemeral memorial/spontaneous shrine/roadside memorial interchangeably, but in this case, I believe ephemeral memorial is the most appropriate due to the absolute ephemerality of the shrine.  Chalk, by nature, does not last on pavement for very long.  I grew up in the hot and dry suburbs, so as a child, a chalked hopscotch pattern could last for quite a long time (maybe two weeks).  In a place like New York City where there is extreme foot traffic and frequent heavy thunderstorms, anything that is chalked will probably not last more than about one or two days– if even that long.

A shrine like this makes me think of burning offerings for the dead.  You burn them and send them off away from the living to the dead.  A shrine that is made with the understanding that it will soon be gone is delicate yet powerful.  It has intense meaning for the fleeting moments that it exists and then it is washed away.  Like the person to whom it is dedicated, the shrine becomes a memory.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire memorial project CHALK…stay tuned…

Russian Orthodox shrine in Sitka, Alaska

I thought I’d share a photo sent to me by my good friend, Ed Ronco.  He a radio reporter in Sitka, Alaska and noticed this shrine one day in the small southeast Alaskan fishing town.  Not only is it a gorgeous photo, it shows a type of shrine I’d never seen before.

It’s a Russian Orthodox memorial.  Russian Orthodox crosses differ from the crosses typically seen on roadside memorials (which have the two perpendicular beams) as they have an additional top beam (symbolizing the sign reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) and bottom beam (a footrest).  While spontaneous shrines are predominantly Catholic and Protestant crosses/crucifixes, there is the occasional shrine that features a different symbol (including the Orthodox cross or Star of David).

I find this shrine beautiful in its simplicity.  There are not many objects around it–just a bunny and the angels.  It is a simple cross, but it is personalized with the small red heart in the center.  This shrine was obviously built to last a long time as it is made of sturdy material and has a plaque that will weather well.  Especially in a place like Sitka, Alaska where the weather can be harsh and the ever-present damp takes its toll on even the most resilient materials, a shrine must be constructed with durability in mind.

Thanks, Ed,  for sharing this photo of the shrine for Christine Beth Howard.

Hesperia and Apple Valley, California

I’m writing an article right now that’s taken me into a number of small communities in the southern CA desert.  A few days ago, a friend and I drove out to the towns of Hesperia and Apple Valley.  Although they are quite a few miles apart, they are connected by a main thoroughfare that had a few spontaneous shrines along it.  The first shrine we passed in Hesperia was for Kimberly:

We drove about a mile down the road before I saw this nearly hidden shrine out of the corner of my eye.  The memorial for Bryan is a white cross that’s decorated with flowers and tacked onto a telephone pole:

A few miles away, in Apple Valley, we passed a very visible shrine.  It surprised me that such an eye-catching shrine had no name or information on it.

This shrine is particularly interesting, because I can’t tell what kind of a person it is for.  The color of the cross and the presence of multiple stuffed animals are common in shrines for children.  The American flag is often present in shrines for veterans or active military.  I’m not sure what to make of the pail filled with stones.  Stones are often left on Jewish gravesites, and I’ve seen pails filled with votive candles at shrines (presumably for passers-by to light if they so choose), but I’ve never seen a pail filled with stones.  Of course, there is also the possibility that the stones are in the pail to keep the pail itself at the memorial.  Any ideas?

Spanish Spontaneous Shrine

I’d like to share some photos sent to me by a journalist and good friend of mine, Lucas Laursen.  He’s currently based in Spain and came across this spontaneous shrine earlier this year on the side of the road near Guadalupe, Extremadura.  I think this is a particularly lovely example of a roadside memorial.

It is simple yet elegant.  While it stands out against the landscape as something beautiful and human-made, it is also visually jarring.

The red flowers are a warning–a gash in the natural surroundings that passersby can’t help but notice.

Thanks for sharing these photos, Lucas!

If any of you have photos you’d like me to put on the blog, feel free to email them to me.

“When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

Hello dear shriners!

I’m very sorry for the long absence…April was a truly crazed month.  The long and short of it is I ended up leaving a job to pursue freelance journalism full-time, I’m in the process of getting ready to move, I’ll be officially graduating next week from my graduate program [for which this was my thesis, though it’s become much more], and I’ve been putting a lot of time into my part-time responsibilities– namely as an interviewer and host for a public radio station, program assistant and blogger for an education abroad trip that I’m totally excited about [it’s on Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies!], and social media coordinator for a public radio news service.  Plus, New York City’s been a happening place to be what with all of the Occupy Wall Street action!

But, I’m excited to be back in the world of spontaneous shrines.  I’ve been collecting lots of interesting material to cover in the coming weeks and I’m looking forward to having the time to blog on a regular basis again.  I figured I’d start off with a more light-hearted post:

It starts with an empty newspaper/flyer box [like those found on many street corners] in Toronto and a person with a sense of urban art aesthetic who had a creative idea for a DIY [do-it-yourself] project.  This person took some plywood and constructed a flower planter inside the open flyer box.  Then, this DIYer posted the idea on a DIY website along with this picture:

I happened upon this photo of the newspaper box planter one day while searching for “makeshift memorials” online.  It was accompanied by an alternative press blog post entitled: “When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

I find it interesting that although the person who initially created the flyer box planter seemed to be only re-purposing and re-beautifying public space, the person who wrote the blog post transformed the flyer box planter from DIY project into makeshift memorial–and what a makeshift memorial it is!  Not only does it have the typical flower offerings, the flower offerings are planted in an aesthetically pleasing configuration.  It is a lovely example of public art and folk art.  The space calls attention to the newspaper stand, and it’s immediately apparent that the space has been altered.  Those print newspaper lovers among us (I’m definitely one) feel a pang of sadness at the loss of a newspaper, but the flowers help me cope with this feeling of loss.  They are beautiful and give me the physical space to deal with the change from what has been to what is now.  It also invites us to participate in this re-claiming of space–we can all make flyer box planters with simple plywood, dirt, and seeds 🙂

This is why I find spontaneous shrines and makeshift memorials such a fascinating topic.  There are so many ways in which public memorialization can be seen in everyday life–and not all of those ways are associated with such terrible topics as death.  People have a need to remember that which has been and memorials, no matter how small or playful, help us reflect upon and move with these changes that comes with time.

With that, I would like to thank you for reading and stay tuned for more posts in the near future!

The ghost bike for Liz Byrne

For the next few days, I’ll be posting photographs from the 7th Annual Ghost Bikes Memorial Walk and Ride.  I participated in the walk, so the photos will be primarily of that portion of the event.  This first set is of the ghost bike for Liz Byrne.  It is located on the corner of McGuinness Boulevard and Kent Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn:

Liz Byrne, age 44, was killed while bicycling on the busy street on Friday, September 23, 2005.  Her sister, Annie Byrne, requested that a ghost bike be installed in her honor.  You can read more about this particular memorial on the ghost bikes website.

Here are pictures of Liz Byrne’s ghost bike taken on Sunday, March 18, 2012:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

“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!

Photographic memory(alization) – A person, a camera, and 1,854 pictures of roadside shrines

Terry Cook has dedication, passion, transportation…and a camera.

Terry visited my blog a while back and left a comment.  Curious about this commenter, I clicked link after link and followed a line of social media until I came to the Flickr photostream of MT Silverstar.  I was absolutely amazed at the images I found there.  Terry has perhaps the most impressive, immense, and diverse collection of roadside memorial photographs I have ever seen.  Not only is each memorial treated in a compassionate and thoughtful manner (any known details about the shrines and the people they memorialize are included), it is clear that the photographer has often made an effort to re-visit many of the shrines after the initial encounter:

               

          

There are photographs of smaller shrines:

and photographs of larger ones:

…photographs of new-age shrines:

          

and photographs of traditional shrines:

The photographer has an eye for detail…

And an eye for individuality:

I always wonder what draws people to these unique markers and was especially curious about what led this particular person to put so much effort into stopping and taking the time to lovingly photograph nearly every roadside memorial that would otherwise have flashed past.  I asked Terry and this is what I received in response:

“When I was very young I used to see the Montana American Legion fatality markers ( a small white cross on a red pole) along the road and they seemed a little spooky to me. Later I worked for many years as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff, and while attending to motor vehicle accidents was a routine part of the job, having to go to someone’s home to tell them that a Son, Daughter, Wife or Husband would not be coming home was a task that I dreaded. Each time I knew that what we or I was about to tell someone would change their life and would be something that they would remember forever. I’m pretty sure that those experiences lead me to my interest in (or obsession with) the memorials that families and friends create for their loved ones.”

Thank you, Terry, for sharing these beautiful images.

In the news: Utah pays $388K to resolve roadside-crosses case

I just found this article today on the firstamendmentcenter.org site under the Religion subheading.  I’m fascinated by initiatives such as this to remove spontaneous shrines from American roadsides using First Amendment (Freedom of Religion) arguments.  I’m still thinking about how exactly to approach this issue.  There are so many different facets to consider!  I’ll be working on it for the next few days and hopefully a good post will be the result.  Stay tuned…

UTAH PAYS $388K TO RESOLVE ROADSIDE-CROSSES CASE

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WIRE REPORT
Monday, February 20, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is paying nearly $400,000 to resolve a lawsuit over roadside crosses honoring Utah troopers killed in the line of duty, officials said Feb. 17.

The settlement forced the state and the Utah Highway Patrol Association to remove 11 Roman crosses along state highways and roads.

The trooper association has taken down the crosses and plans to move them off roadsides and rest stops to nearby private land with the owners’ permission. It also must remove UHP logos from the symbols.

The lawsuit was filed by American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members in 2005.

Utah paid $1 to settle the case, but the Utah Attorney General’s office confirmed Feb. 17 it is paying about $388,000 in legal fees for the atheists.

Utah and the troopers’ association “fought tooth and nail saying these crosses aren’t really religious symbols and they should stay,” Brian Barnard, a civil rights lawyer who represented American Atheists, said. “They wouldn’t entertain any discussion about compromising over six years. We offered repeatedly to try and resolve it short of full litigation.”

At first, the atheists’ lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge David Sam in Salt Lake City, but a three-judge panel from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that the highway crosses represented a state endorsement of Christianity.

State attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but justices declined to hear the case last year.

Barnard said the $388,000 pays his legal fees but that the state and trooper association probably spent as much money and time trying to defeat the lawsuit.

The Utah Highway Patrol Association maintains the memorials and is repainting them to remove official logos. It was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., group that describes itself as a defender of religious freedom.

“We were prepared to fight this battle to the very end because it was very important,” said Byron Babione,the group’s senior counsel.

Babione said troopers were unhappy with the settlement and wanted to keep the crosses in place — without logos, but with a disclaimer saying Utah wasn’t endorsing any religion.

State lawyers rejected that request, saying it risked more litigation, he said.

Barnard’s legal fees were authorized by Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature, but Barnard said he was given a check on Feb. 15 that fell about $8,000 short of the agreed figure.

Utah is writing a second check to cover the difference, said Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s spokesman, Paul Murphy.

Remembering after the storm: 3 strands of Mardi Gras beads in the Lower Ninth Ward

These are from a website of photographs of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana.  They were all taken in January 2006, five months after Hurricane Katrina:

————————————————————————————————————

And then I saw this one:

And I knew it was different.

The caption for this photograph is simple.  It reads:

“Mardi Gras beads on an iron fence at Deslonde(?) Street in Lower Ninth Ward in fog at morning.  New Orleans, Louisiana, January 30, 2006.”

What is so moving about this photograph?  The first image shows the absolute destruction.  The second is terribly sad–a heap of children’s bikes and slumped beads and poppets.  The third is mind-numbing in its bluntness–the matter-of-fact message scrawled in blue spray paint: “possible body.”

But there is something different about the fourth picture.  It shows the devastation and the beads again, but this time they do not fit together as they should.  The background is chaotic and mangled.  Yet, the beads are perfectly straight, hanging calmly from a single point on the fence.  They are not tangled, nor are they haphazardly thrown on the wrought iron rod.  They are neatly wrapped around and balanced–green, gold, silver.

When I look at these beads, I do not see an accident or a consequence of the storm.  I see a deliberate act.  I see the work of a person bringing order to chaos–of a person re-familiarizing a desolate and unrecognizable landscape.  Perhaps the beads were found on the ground, picked up, and hung on the fence.  Perhaps they were around the person’s neck and were left there on Mardi Gras.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is the result of this action.  It is a re-claiming of space.  These beads, however small and simple, are a spontaneous shrine.

I initially thought that a makeshift memorial for an event as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina would be impossible.  How does one spontaneously memorialize mass death, extreme suffering, unfathomable trauma, the absolute destruction of an entire city?  A massive shrine might be appropriate–a mountain of flowers and candles and photographs of all the dead, perhaps.  But when the city is gone, where does one put the shrine?  In the middle of the destruction?  In the midst of chaos, a chaotic heap of objects does not stand out–it only adds confusion to the already cluttered landscape.

The Lower Ninth ward was de-humanized.  It is inhospitable.  It is obvious from the other photographs that people cannot live in that.  In this once populated landscape, now devoid of human life, the greatest statement can be made by the simplest act.  An act of compassion toward the space through an attempt to bring familiarity back to the space is enough to mark that space from all that surrounds it.  The strands of beads stand against the mark of “possible body.”  They say clearly “people were here.”  They are meant to be seen and meant to be noticed by others who venture into this place.  Especially in a place where the tradition of Mardi Gras is strong, the beads are instant symbols of the way things should be–of the way things were.  The photographer noticed the beads–or perhaps even placed them, and then took a picture of them.  The message is passed along.

Three strands of Mardi Gras beads remind the lookers that people lived there once and that people are there again.  They invite us to look, to remember, and to begin to take back this devastated space.

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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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