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 “ritual”

“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!

Memorials moving to cyberspace as ground space runs out

A good friend of mine recently passed along this article to me.  It’s not exactly spontaneous shrines, but I find the discussion of the movement of memorials due to space constraints quite interesting.

The Challenges of Burying the Dead in Urban Asia


The Challenges of Burying the Dead in Urban Asia


In highly dense cities it’s often hard enough to find room for the living, let alone the dead. The problem is compounded in cultures that place great ritual meaning on burial sites. Given the realities of space constraints in many Asian cities, governments have been encouraging residents to forego traditional land burials for cremation. Even that hasn’t always been enough; in some places, the columbaria, where people can store their family urns, have reached capacity as well.

What began as a physical problem has given rise to novel spiritual rituals in many Asian cities. In the February issue of Urban Studies, Lily Kong, a geographer at the National University of Singapore, describes how commemorative practices in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China have changed in response to shrinking amounts of physical space for the dead. These shifts — from earthly graves to cremation, and now to scattered ashes and even online memorials — mark a graduation from “spatial competition to spatial compression and then to spatial transcendence,” Kong writes:

What is evident from existing studies is that death practices and deathscapes have evolved over time in a number of Asian cities. … As a consequence, sacred space and sacred time have been reconceptualised and rituals have been (re)invented to suit conditions of modernity while addressing abiding belief systems.

Kong points to three main examples in support of her point. The first is the (slowly) rising act of burial by sea in Hong Kong. A few years back officials recognized that by 2012 half of people who died in the city wouldn’t be able to find a spot in a columbarium, so the government began to promote the scattering of cremated ashes at sea. The process is non-pollutive and restricted to certain areas, and it’s also far cheaper than keeping an urn, which can cost at least $500 in U.S. currency.

However city residents have been reluctant to embrace the practice for several religious reasons. One is the belief, rooted in Chinese ritual, that the body should return to its natural place in the earth. Without a burial, therefore, people grow fearful of “giving rise to a ‘hungry ghost’ rather than a venerated ancestor,” Kong writes. Many also see scattering ashes at sea as tantamount to feeding fish — and thus disrespectful to the dead.

By comparison, the practice of woodland burials in cities in Taiwan have became far more popular. Taipei City has a density of nearly 10,000 people per square kilometer, and the packed city has a seven-year limit for earthen burial, after which the body must be exhumed and cremated. Still there’s a shortage of cemetery plots, Kong writes. Of its two major columbaria, one reached capacity in 2004 while the other was expected to do so last year.

In response the government has pushed hard for woodland or parkland burials. In the former, family members place ashes in biodegradable urns near a tree; in the latter, they scatter ashes over flower gardens. Both methods require just 10 percent of the space needed by a traditional grave site. Buddhists have accepted the practices as environmentally friendly, and the method offers some benefits that sea burial does not, such as the ability to mark sites with a rock and visit it later. With a few exceptions, the people of Taiwan have embraced the alternative; the first woodland plot, which opened in October of 2003, was full by September of 2004.

Kong ends her survey with a look at online memorialization in cities of mainland China. By 1985 density pressures had made cremation compulsory by law, and alternatives like woodland and sea burials have been introduced over the years. In addition the country has introduced online mourning sites, through which relatives of the deceased can set up a page dedicated to a loved one’s memory. Kong describes:

With the websites dedicated to mourning and memorialisation, users can use their computer mouse to drag fresh flowers, matches, incense, candles and tea and wine cups to simulate the real act of offering flowers, lighting incense and candles, and offering tea and wine. The sites also feature photos of the deceased, prayers offered by their mourners and stories and reminiscences about past lives, which can be captured in multimedia format. For the specific site they are engaged with, they may also choose their own backgrounds and tombstone images.

By 2007 there were more than 30 commercial memorial websites in China, Kong reports. One of these, Netor, reported roughly 6 million messages posted to the site in its first six years of existence, though others have reported far less impressive traffic levels. That’s because many Chinese object to the practice on several grounds. Some don’t view the Internet as a respectful forum for remembering the deceased, while others have a desire to continue the ceremony of Qing Ming — an annual festival to celebrate the departed by visiting a gravesite.

Kong concludes that the most successful alternative burial methods in Asia are those that offer a mechanism for “spatial transcendence” while providing for both a dignified afterlife and a way for living relatives to honor the dead:

The relative reception of these new practices is thus dependent on the ability to address the need for a unique place where memorial practices may be carried out. It is also premised on the ability to maintain relative levels of privacy (hence exclusivity) and public character according to the desires of the descendants. Further, it is necessary that there remains some thread of continuity with old rituals.

Top image: A worker arranges altar tablets at a luxury columbarium in Singapore (Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America. He lives in New York

Shrines and Ritual

A ritual is a repeatedly performed action with particular attributes. Rituals are efficacious; they help one achieve desired results. They are aesthetically pleasing so as to respectfully and non-chaotically support the performance. Rituals are orderly. Even if there is no exact order in which to perform certain actions, they are orderly in the sense that they are not disorganized. They are done deliberately and carefully, not haphazardly. They are cooperative—with participants working alongside one another to perform the ritual as smoothly as possible. When a ritual is performed by a single person, it is done in a cooperative manner with respect to any other person who may have come before them, will follow them, or with respect to that for which the ritual is being performed. Finally, rituals are magical. They compel people to act in a way they would not usually act, which sets the ritual apart from everyday behavior, (Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred).

Space and place, and purity and pollution are factors to be considered with regard to the importance of correct performance of ritual. There are two main kinds of rituals performed around spontaneous shrines, both of which recognize and defer to the sacrality of the site. The first is the ritual of creating the shrine and the subsequent visitation and maintenance by acquaintances of the deceased. This is the ritual of familiarity, so to speak, as the people performing the ritual have a personal connection to the ones they are mourning.

Shrines are most commonly put together as soon as possible following the death. As respect for space and place are key to correct performance, the shrine is located as close as possible to the actual place of death, even if the location is dangerous to access. There is usually a large grounding piece, often a cross, constructed from material gathered at the site (such as wood in a natural setting or a piece of the vehicle in the case of an road accident) or at home from metal, plastic, or wood. The name of the deceased and the birth and death dates or a short message are frequently written on this piece.

Carefully chosen offerings are then attractively arranged around the central piece. The offerings are very different from those found at other places of mourning, such as cemeteries. “[S]pontaneous shrines, because they are vernacular and thus outside the social conventions that govern formal religious observances such as funerals, contain infinitely more than flowers, candles, rosaries, and crosses,” (Grider, in Death and Religion in a Changing World). It is common to find such “idiosyncratic offerings” as bottles of beer and cartons of cigarettes at shrines. For a sacred site to be conducive to efficacious ritual, it must remain pure and unpolluted. While cans of Budweiser and cheap cigarettes could be considered highly polluting and rather inappropriate or tacky in traditional settings, such as funerals or in cemeteries, the communicative nature of spontaneous shrines allows for much more personalized offerings. “The artifact assemblages are sacred by virtue of the actions and intentions of the people who create and tend to them,” (Grider). As the shrines are most often constructed within the temporal boundaries of death and burial, I would argue they are able to serve as relatively open conduits between the living and the dead.

Through the performance of ritual and the providing of comfort via favorite food/beer/cigarettes, the bereaved are able to care for the dead, along with themselves—through feeling useful, during this liminal period. “The burial ritual is soothing in that it commits the dead to the world of the dead and thereby confirms the deceased’s status, while at the same time it confirms the bereaved’s status as belonging to this life,” (Westgaard, in Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death). Before this definitive closure takes place, both the living and the dead must go through what Gerard van Gennep terms a “rite of passage.”. One stage of this passage is the time of being “betwixt and between”; that is when the conduit is open. As there is only a short window during which direct caring might take place, I therefore believe it would be more polluting to offer generic items rather than highly personalized ones. Finally, the very act of claiming the site polluted by death and creating a pure shrine to the deceased, works to cleanse the conduit between living and dead leaving it open for communication and care.

The second type of ritual is the viewing and visiting of the site by strangers—by people with no connection whatsoever to the deceased. This may take place soon after the death occurs, but often continues to happen for some time—sometimes years—after. This ritual is very different from the aforementioned ritual of familiarity, which is performed by the bereaved to achieve some type of result. The relationship between a passerby and a shrine at first seems tenuous, but I believe it is in truth, quite powerful. Not only does the visitor perform a type of ritual in the encounter with the shrine, but also the shrine itself becomes a self-sustaining ritual place. For example, roadside shrines in particular are often located on dangerous stretches of highway where accidents are likely to occur. The simple act of a driver seeing a shrine allows the shrine to act as a message, of sorts. It puts the personal face on the dangerous road. It says, be careful, someone died right here, on this road, where you are driving. It is eye-catching (which can also be dangerous), and calls attention to danger in the way a “Caution!” sign cannot.

For the driver, the shrine acts as a kind of memento mori—a reminder that death could be—and has been—just around the next bend.

The other type of stranger-ritual is performed by passersby who stop or change course specifically to experience the shrine up close. Despite the fact that shrines are often located in sparsely populated areas and they often have at least one offering of minimal value (be it a teddy bear or an entire carton of cigarettes), they are rarely vandalized. Rather, the visitor is cooperative, does not interfere with the aesthetic, and does not behave in any way contrary to the orderliness expected of them. To vandalize a shrine would be to pollute a sacred space with impure intentions and actions. However, the strangers who come into contact with the shrines have no personal connection to the deceased or to the living who constructed it. What makes a spontaneous shrine something not to be tampered with? Why is it seemingly understood that there is just something wrong about disturbing a shrine? What gives the shrine its magical ability to make people act in a way they ordinarily would not?

I look to Pierre Bordieu’s work on the habitus as a possible explanation. He suggests in Outline of a Theory of Practice that the habitus, or environment, in which people exist on a daily basis, is not necessarily created by those who live in it. Previously, it had been thought that humans were the only catalysts within their environments—that no other entities were capable of initially influencing the human existence apart from humans. Bordieu suggests that the materials and objects that comprise that environment actually influence people who in turn project their preconceptions and understandings onto similar objects and materials they later see, (1977, p. 72- 95). Spontaneous shrines are part of a larger material culture of grief. They resemble other commemorative memorials and markers of so-called hallowed ground.

With regard to the spontaneous shrines found in the United States–as part of the American material-memorial landscape, I believe they might function as personal practices and expressions of American civil religion. Americans are taught to treat the symbols and monuments of civil religion (the Vietnam War Memorial, Civil War battlefields, the USS Arizona, Shanksville, PA) as sacred spaces—deserving of the utmost respect (Doss, Memorial Mania). Thus, the similar, if smaller, space of a spontaneous shrine signals the same behavior as a larger memorial. The material landscape directly shapes a person’s response to public space.  I am also led to wonder if this is why there is frequently a very lax legal stance taken on spontaneous shrines. Though they are illegal in many states, they are rarely removed unless they pose a severe hazard.

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