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 “media”

Skittles, iced tea, and 1,000,000 hoodies for Trayvon Martin

On March 21, 2012,  I went  to Union Square in New York City where thousands of protesters had gathered for the Million Hoodie March in honor of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch member in Sanford, Florida on February 26.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The majority of protesters were wearing “hoodies” or sweatshirts with hoods which they had pulled up over their heads:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Many of the protesters were carrying bags of Skittles:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…while others carried bottles of Arizona iced tea:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

It was reported that Martin was wearing a hoodie and walking home from a convenience store where he had bought Skittles and iced tea when he was shot.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

This particular incident has sparked outrage across the country due to the possible racial profiling involved in the lack of action taken by local police to prosecute Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman.  It does not surprise me that such a large protest would take place on the streets of New York.  This city is often at the forefront of social movements and with a substantial #Occupy contingent supporting the march, the large turnout was to be expected.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

However, as someone fascinated by spontaneous memorialization practices, I was drawn to this march in particular because of how it was dressed.

If I were at a spontaneous shrine for Trayvon Martin, I would expect to find the usual teddy bears, flowers, and candles alongside certain objects specifically for Martin and his particular death.  There might be sweatshirts but I am almost certain there would be Skittles and iced tea.  Like the shrine for Amy Winehouse where there were bottles of alcohol and cigarettes, the shrine for Martin would have objects people associate with him.

As this was a memorial march [not just a political one], I believe the protesters’ decision to wear and carry these Martin-specific items makes this a mobile shrine of sorts.  Like an internet memorial that can be accessed by anyone–even someone far away from a death site–a memorial march/protest creates a memorial space [and place to grieve] that is accessible to these memorializers.  It serves the same purpose as any other spontaneous shrine; it calls attention to the circumstances that led to this person’s death and force onlookers to bear witness to the consequences.

As memento mori, these hooded people walking the streets of New York at night ask us all to consider the question:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

To see more of my photos from the Million Hoodie March, click here,  here or here.  To sign the petition written by Martin’s family calling for the prosecution of his shooter, George Zimmerman, click here.

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“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!

Shrines for Winehouse Said No to Rehab

Amy Winehouse was found dead in her home on July 23, 2011.  After an autopsy, it was determined that she died of accidental alcohol poisoning.  Her BAC (blood alcohol content) was 5 times the British legal limit.  She had reportedly been trying to give up alcohol and had spent most of the month sober.  However, earlier in the week she had started to binge drink again.  When she was discovered, there were 3 empty vodka bottles near her bed.

Several shrines popped up around the world in tribute to the 27 year old Grammy-winning star.  The largest was located near the London home where she died.  Placed at the shrine were teddy bears, flowers, votive candles, CDs, personal notes and…empty vodka bottles.

In my experience, it is quite common to find alcohol left at spontaneous shrines–especially cans and bottles of a person’s favorite beer.  If the person was a smoker, there are often cigarettes, ashtrays, and lighters left as well.  However, I think it is quite a different situation when these objects are left at a shrine for a pop culture figure.

While Winehouse’s propensity for alcohol was common knowledge [her award-winning song “Rehab” deals with this issue], other intimate details about her likes and dislikes that would otherwise have influenced the choice of how to decorate her shrine may not have been known.  Because the shrine was created by her fans, rather than her family or close acquaintances, I believe it was more in memory of her persona rather than her as a person.

Her death at the young age of 27 secured her spot among interesting company, as a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock and roll [and popular music] icons who all died at the same age.  This group includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones [Rolling Stones], and Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], to name a few.  When she died, her created persona–her character–Amy Winehouse the Star–died as well.  While those who were close to her might mourn the loss of their loved one, her fans mourn the loss of their beloved artist.

For example, Jim Morrison’s grave site in Paris is a popular pilgrimage site for young musicians.  Along with the usual offerings of notes, candles, and flowers, his grave is known for being covered in wine bottles, condom wrappers, needles, and other drug paraphernalia.  These appear to be offerings to more than just Jim Morrison; they are in memory of the rock and roll era for which he was a figurehead.  Drugs, sex, and rock and roll, the ethos of the 60s and 70s, Jim Morrison–all are lost and must be remembered.

Likewise, there is more being remembered than simply ‘Amy the 27-year-old’ at her shrine.  The empty vodka bottles are for the musician who would sing openly about alcoholism and drug addiction, rehab and depression.  They are for a person who is known for enjoying vodka.  They are for the person who sang: “I don’t ever want to drink again / I just need a friend.”

It is ironic that the offerings to Amy Winehouse are the same bottles of alcohol that caused her death, but they are the offerings that loyal fans associate with a musician they cannot and will not forget.  In a way, there is no harm that leaving the alcohol can possibly do.  They cannot hurt her now, and while they may be seen by some as “glorifying” a culture of alcoholism, they might also be the only way for those who knew her through her music alone to pay respectful and personal tribute to her life and work.

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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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