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 “memento mori”

Fire that sparked a movement: Uniting in memoriam of the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Sunday, March 25, 2012 marks the 101st anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one of the worst industrial tragedies in history.

A fire possibly ignited by a discarded match or cigarette on the 8th floor of the factory caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly young women and girls.  After the fire bell rang, many workers were unable to get out of the building due to locked exit doors, narrow hallways, overcrowding, and collapsed fire escapes.  As a result, over 40 of them jumped from 8th, 9th, and 10th story windows while many more remained trapped inside.

The incident galvanized support for labor movements and unions as people united to fight for a worker’s right to safe working conditions.

Yesterday, a crowd gathered at Gould Plaza in Lower Manhattan to take part in the annual Procession of 146 Shirtwaists to honor those who lost their lives 101 years ago:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The procession went from the plaza to NYU’s Brown building, formerly the Asch building, on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street which historically housed the Triangle Waist Factory.  There were performers:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…and people carrying shirtwaists with sashes bearing the names of the deceased:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Some of the people in the procession were carrying photos of the workers who died in the fire:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

A few of these photo-bearers are related to the workers whose images they carry.  Davin Fortuna is the great-great-grand nephew of Daisy Lopez Fitze, who was 26 when she perished in the fire.  He is pictured here with his wife, Carolyn Asselta-Fortuna and their photo of Daisy:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

When the procession reached its destination, it was met by a crowd comprising labor organizers, members of Workers United, the AFL-CIO, and many more including the Jewish Labor Committee:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

There were speakers from these various organizations, along with one woman who spoke about the unsafe and unethical working conditions in the Queens, NY laundry where she is employed.  She spoke only in Spanish, with a translator by her side, and called for everyone in the audience to hear her cry for help and stand with the laundry workers to demand better treatment.

Although this is not a spontaneous shrine, it is perhaps the perfect example of memorialization for social justice.  I believe it is important to look at memorialization practices outside of the realm of spontaneous shrines to better understand the shrines and this culture of memorialization from which they stem.

People gather here, on this “sacred ground,” to mourn the deaths of others and demand change for the future.  The sacred space is carved out of normal space, hallowed by the blood spilled on the ground and the ghosts in the walls–and the ritual is performed by the participants.  It begins with the ritual raising of the fire ladder:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The names of the dead are read one by one, in an organized fashion.  One flower is placed by the building for each name:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

A bell is sounded for each name; the sound rings clear through the air, jarring each person to attention, carving out the aural space, and carrying the name with it to the dead:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The memorial is personal–for each of the people it is commemorating:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Like many of these community memorializations–and the majority of spontaneous shrines, I believe–while the people to whom the memorials are dedicated may have been of a particular religion, within the space of the ‘memorial ritual’ there are no specific religious practices required and diverse religious and cultural practices are welcomed and accepted, so long as they are done with respect:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The shrines and rituals stand somewhat outside of religion, although they are tied inextricably to it at the same time.  The important idea behind these memorials is to not forget, so although different people will remember and honor in different ways, so long as the tragedy does not fade into history and its lessons are not forgotten, everyone is invited to mourn the past and work together for a better future.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

For those of you in the New York City area, tomorrow (March 25th–the actual 101st anniversary) the names of the workers will be chalked outside of their historic homes which are located throughout the 5 boroughs and New Jersey.  For more information about the chalking project, click here.  Additionally, everyone is invited to ring a bell at 4:45 pm (16:45) EST, to commemorate the sounding of the first fire bell.

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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!

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.

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"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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