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 “news”

Veterans Day #1: Lake Elsinore Veterans memorial proposed for Diamond Stadium

I will be sharing a series of articles from the Inland Empire-based newspaper The Press-Enterprise regarding a proposed Veterans memorial in Lake Elsinore, California and then writing a post about it in the context of spontaneous shrines.  Here is the first article from PE on October 24th:

LAKE ELSINORE: Veterans memorial proposed for Diamond Stadium

The Lake Elsinore City Council will vote on the project at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The cost is put at $46,172

STAFF WRITERBY JOHN F. HILL

johnhill@pe.com

Published: 22 October 2012 04:16 PM

A black granite memorial to military veterans has been proposed for the main entrance to the Lake Elsinore Storm’s Diamond Stadium.

The City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 23, will consider approving the memorial’s final design and $50,000 price tag. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Lake Elsinore Cultural Arts Center, 183 N. Main St.

The six-foot-tall memorial will feature a set of polished black granite pedestals set on a raised concrete circle in front of the stadium entrance. Five small pedestals will be engraved with the emblems of each branch of the armed forces, surrounding a taller, central monument with text over an American Flag.

The base of the monument, under the silhouette of a solider kneeing in front of a cross, will read: “Freedom is Never Free.”

The design was chosen by a committee of Mayor Brian Tisdale, Lake Elsinore Historical Society President Joyce Hohenadl and representatives from local veterans groups, according to a city report.

Hohenadl said the group wanted a prominent location, so they decided to put the memorial right where baseball fans walk in to buy their tickets for Storm games.

“We thought that would be the most visible place for it,” Hohenadl said.

The memorial will be built by Sun City Granite, a Perris company known for its work with the military. The engraving company produces headstones for all fallen troops buried at Riverside National Cemetery.

It also built the National Distinguished Flying Cross Memorial at March Air Force Base and the new veterans memorial in Canyon Lake, said owner Teresa Herbers.

The company, which designed the Lake Elsinore memorial, has agreed to build it for $46,172. The city has $50,000 set aside for the project in its 2012-13 budget.

Follow John F. Hill on Twitter: @johnfhill2

Mojave cross to be reinstalled on Veterans Day, 2012

A while ago, I wrote a post about a memorial cross for veterans located in the Mojave National Preserve in California.  This cross was considered very controversial because of its placement on public property.  It went missing in early 2010 but authorities think it has finally been found– in Half Moon Bay (about 500 miles north of the Mojave).  If possible, I’ll attend the re-installation ceremony on Veterans Day and post about it.  For now, here’s some local news coverage on this interesting event:

MOJAVE CROSS: Memorial found days before replacement ceremony

 2010/FILE PHOTO
The foundation of the Mojave Cross was all that remained atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in May 2010. A Veterans of Foreign Wars plans to erect a new cross on Veterans Day 2012.

BY BEN GOAD

WASHINGTON BUREAU

bgoad@pe.com

Published: 06 November 2012 03:19 PM

The protracted and often mysterious Mojave Cross saga took another unexpected turn, just days before supporters of the controversial war memorial were set to celebrate the symbol’s long-awaited return to a desert hilltop.

Two years ago, the cross vanished from its perch in the Mojave National Preserve following a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing it to stand. This week, authorities believe they found the stolen memorial more than 500 miles away in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco.

Affixed to a fence post with plastic ties, the seven-foot cross was found in good condition late Monday, Nov. 5. Attached to it was a note identifying the cross as an “important historical artifact” and asking whoever found it to alert the authorities.

Rebecca Rosenblatt of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department said investigators believed the cross was the same one stolen from the Mojave Desert. She described their efforts to confirm its authenticity as “similar to identifying a lost child with scars or birthmarks.”

Henry and Wanda Sandoz, who have served as caretakers of the cross for decades, were not so sure. They viewed photographs that showed a box-shaped piece at the base of the cross that was not part of the original construction, Wanda Sandoz said. Either way, the couple intend to go ahead with plans to install a replacement cross this weekend.

“We don’t want to give the nut that took it the satisfaction,” Sandoz said Tuesday.

Mojave National Preserve spokeswoman Linda Slater said the cross is considered evidence and on Tuesday was still being held by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department.

The cross was first erected1934 to honor war dead, and the Sandoz’s have kept watch over its various incarnations as a promise to one of the veterans who first placed it on Sunrise Rock, east of Baker in San Bernardino County. Originally made of wood, the cross had been vandalized and stolen before, prompting Henry Sandoz to make one out of iron and bolt it to the rock.

In the 1990s, the cross became the focal point of a national debate over whether the symbol should be allowed to stand on public land in the Mojave National Preserve. The ACLU, which joined a lawsuit seeking its removal, contended that the cross violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the government from endorsing any religion.

In the decade that followed, the case wound through the court system, with judges twice ruling that the cross must come down. That ruling came even though Congress had approved a land swap orchestrated by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands that would have left the cross on private land owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

In 2010, a divided Supreme Court ruled that that decision to remove the cross did not take proper account of the land transfer and sent the case back to federal district court in California. But the cross was stolen two months later, and the federal government barred supporters from replacing it until a settlement was reached. No arrests were ever made. Another cross appeared shortly after but was quickly ordered taken down.

In April this year, a settlement was reached. The land transfer envisioned by Lewis years earlier was formally completed last week, setting the stage for a Veterans Day ceremony this Sunday, Nov. 11, to install the replacement cross.

Sandoz said she hopes the ceremony will signal the end of the fight to return the cross to its original place. “We felt like maybe this would never happen in our lifetime,” she said.

Now, she said, “we feel like – mission accomplished.”

Also contributing to this report: staff writer Gail Wesson and the Associated Press.

Follow Ben Goad on Twitter: @ben_goad

MOJAVE CROSS CEREMONY

A replacement cross will be erected on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

When: Cross installation, 11 a.m.; rededication ceremony, 1 p.m.

Where: Sunrise Rock, 11.5 miles south of Interstate 15 off Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve

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.

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.

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

NYC Ghost Bikes – 7th Annual Memorial Ride and Walk on 3/18

For people living in the New York City area who are interested in spontaneous shrines or ghost bikes, here is the latest information about the New York City ghost bike memorial ride and walk happening this Sunday, March 18th.  See you there!  The itinerary below is from the ghost bikes website:

The NYC Street Memorial Project will hold the 7th Annual Memorial Ride and Walk on Sunday, March 18, 2012. Together we will ride to the locations where cyclists have lost their lives in the past year. Bring flowers and other items to honor those we have lost.

We invite other locations to ride with us by scheduling their own memorial rides and events on that day. Please contact us to let us know about your ride or to help out on ours.

The Ride/Walk schedule is subject to change – for updates on the day of the ride follow us at www.twitter.com/nycstreetmem or #memride2012.

 

If you plan to take the subway to meet up with the ride, we suggest you check the MTA Planned Service Changes for 3/18.

Please RSVP to our Facebook event.

Staten Island Ride

12:00 Meet-up: Everything Goes Book Cafe, 208 Bay St (between Victory and Hannah)
12:30 Sutter Oval (Howard Ave end), Wagner College, across from Main Hall

12:45 RJ Tillman, Howard Ave between Highland and Grand
2:00 SI Ferry, St. George Terminal, Staten Island

2:30 SI Ferry, South Ferry Terminal, Manhattan

3:10 Jeffrey Axelrod, Chrystie & Delancey [Convergence with Bronx-Manhattan ride]


Bronx-Manhattan Ride

11:30 Meet-up: La Finca Del Sur Community Garden, E138th & Grand Concourse (4 or 5 to E138th St, Bronx)

11:50 Unnamed memorial, E141st St. & Bruckner Expwy
12:30 Unnamed memorial, W125th St. & 5th Ave
1:00 Qi Yu Weng, E96th St. & 2nd Ave
1:40 Meet-up: Central Park South & 7th Ave.
2:00 Marilyn Dershowitz, W29th & 9th Ave
2:45 Ray Deter, Canal & West Broadway
3:10 Jeffrey Axelrod, Christie & Delancey
3:45 Nicolas Djandji, Borinquen Pl & Rodney St. [Convergence with Brooklyn  Ride]

Queens-Brooklyn Ride

11:30 Meet-up: Cross Bay Pkwy & Beach Channel Dr. (A to Beach 90 or Beach 98)
11:45 Andrzei Wiesniuk, Cross Bay Pkwy & Beach Channel Dr.
1:45 James Pierre, E53rd St & Linden Boulevard

2:45 Chris Doyle, Metropolitan Ave. & Gardner Ave. [Convergence with Brooklyn ride]


Brooklyn Ride

12:30 Meet-up: Avenue T & West 9th St. – map (D to 25th Ave. or N to Avenue U)
1:00 Joseph Granati, Avenue T & West 9th St.
1:20 Aileen Chen, 62nd St. & 21st Ave.
1:40 Luis Torres, Fort Hamilton Pkwy & 59th St.
2:45 Chris Doyle, Metropolitan Ave. & Gardner Ave. [Convergence with Queens ride]

3:00 Mathieu LeFevre, Morgan Ave. & Meserole Ave.
3:20 Erica Abbott, Bushwick Ave. & Powers St.
3:45 Nicolas Djandji, Borinquen Pl. & Rodney St. [Convergence with Manhattan ride]

4:00 Unnamed memorial, Union Ave. & S5th St. [Convergence with Memorial Walk]

Memorial Walk

1:45-2pm: Gather @ Manhattan Ave & Green St (G Train to Greenpoint Ave)

2:05 Unnamed Memorial, Green St & McGuinness Blvd
2:15 Liz Byrne, Kent St & McGuinness Blvd
2:25 Unnamed Memorial, Greenpoint Ave & McGuinness Blvd
2:35 Neil Chamberlain & Unnamed Memorial, Calyer & McGuinness Blvd
2;45 Unnamed Memorial, Norman & McGuinness Blvd
2:55 Unnamed Memorial, Nassau & McGuinness Blvd
3:40 Leopoldo Hernandez, Borinquen Pl & S2nd
4:00 Unnamed Memorial, Union Ave & S5th [Convergence with Memorial Ride]

Rain date: Sunday, March 25

“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!

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.

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

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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