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 “sacred space”

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

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.




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


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

“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!

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.

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…



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.

Albion Street – A poem and a place of death

“On 2nd February 2009 at 11pm, 16 year old Andrew Bornen was handcuffed by police and left lying face down on Albion St, Brassall. He was subsequently hit by a car driven by a young woman who failed to see the police try to flag her down. He later died of head injuries in the Ipswich Hospital.”

This is the postscript to Brett Dionysis’ poem, “Albion Street,” which is dedicated to Bornen.  Dionysis, a grammar school teacher from Ipswich, UK, won several awards in the 2011 Ipswich Poetry Feast, including first prize for “Albion Street.”  He writes about tragedy and loss in his English hometown, visiting makeshift memorials around the community as inspiration for his poems.  I wanted to share this quote from the article, “How tragedy inspired poetry,” followed by the poem itself.  In a way, Dionysis’ poems stand as extensions of the shrines–they carry the memory of the dead beyond the death itself.  They catch our attention and force us momentarily to consider an individual life and the implications of a tragic death.

“I believe that writers should explore their sense of place, and a part of that is the tragic sense of place, which is sometimes not covered.”

Mr Dionysius said his latest poems tried to “make sense of the insensible; of senseless acts that occur in utterly tragic circumstances”.

“It’s not that Ipswich has a tragic history, it’s just that I’m drawn to trying to make sense of parts of life,” he said.

Mr Dionysius said he was personally affected by the death of Mr Bornen on Albion St, as he lived near the scene in a “tight-knit community”.

“I remember the night that it happened, we heard the sirens pass our house,” Mr Dionysius said.

“It affected a lot of people, and the effect rippled out into the Ipswich community.”

Mr Dionysius said his Albion Street poem explored the event from the perspective of the natural environment and place, with monuments and statues being a major theme.

“In some cultures, battle and loss sites become sacred, and we’ve become obsessed with monuments ourselves,” he said.

Brett Dionysis at the makeshift memorial for Andrew Bornen. Photo by Claudia Baxter.

Albion Street 

by Brett Dionysius
Woodend, Qld

For Andrew Bornen

The bitumen was a blue scab short-healed & sticky
Where its edges had been picked at by cars & trucks
That gained bodily pleasure from teasing out its pain.
Its crusted lip was infected & boiled, as the Ipswich
Heat sank its knee into the road’s soft, navy groin.
A bridge pulled like a stitch across the Bremer’s tan
Cut, traffic laced over it & tied off the river’s deep
Wound. A monument bled brass words on the wet
Crossings’ historical news; a white pyramid, it stood
As memory’s speed hump, something to slow down.
Light fled the scene without telling anyone as night
Injected itself into the squabble; a scheduled painkiller
That cooled the hot sweat & turned the road to bruise.
Rainbow lorikeets spewed out the animals’ white noise.

The bitumen gave a bit as he stepped onto it; like boys
Poking their fingers into a mother’s set jelly & bending
Matter. The road had sunk into an abyss of cobalt &
Wobbled under his bare feet as he took centre stage.
A breeze enveloped him in its fluid net & he looked
Towards the river, tracing the road’s curvature until
He spotted, just after the bridge, a giant’s white tooth
Cemented into the ground. The Bremer, a soggy mouth
Sucked in all sound, so he didn’t hear the night’s repeat
Command; to lie down in its arms. Fruit bats formed
A furry vortex as homogenous dusk moved in & draped
Its black wing over him. They picked him up clearly, as
Their radar signals bounced harmlessly from his head.
Headlights spotted him & they gave him up for dead.

With the switch of a torch they transformed him into lead.
He spotlight froze in the backyard at night, where possums
Sucked him in with the pitch-black bathplugs of their eyes.
These men were trees to him. Pouches full of institution.
He fell into the sapphire road’s slick embrace as his body
Ripped its park brake & he jack knifed to a stop. His lips
Smeared some rouge on the bitumen’s blue shirt, he swore
They had filled his lungs with concrete, all he could get was
A squelchy breath. His muscles ran their instant marathon.
They tagged him with steel bracelets, & supported a cause
No one else could appreciate, charity having fled back into
Pandora’s Box to tape her sore wrists up. Time out of joint.
Like water-birds blind at night, they trailed a broken wing
To distract the hunter, who suddenly burst in on the thing.

Nothing is as frightening as the telephone’s midnight ring.
Sound will take you, if you stop & listen to it. Voices rise
& fall like a sleeper’s automatic chest or a kestrel’s clawed
Collapse, when breath-quiet, a mouse never hears its death.
The azure bitumen was oddly comfortable, like in the school
Playground when, big lunch perched, he would eat as if there
Were no tomorrow. It could be warm as any beach, or stretch
Like old chewing gum, but here, right now it only cradled him
A father’s pumped arms, a mother’s pliant breast, it stood in for
The care of atoms & earthly stuff. He was touched at the last.
He was a fallen statue carved from sixteen years of love, that
One small blemish kept from calling a masterpiece. He knew
That a giant’s tooth could chip, as the road’s indigo cloak
Engulfed him. He never listened to the chisel’s final stroke.

On 2nd February 2009 at 11pm, 16 year old Andrew Bornen was handcuffed by police and left lying face down on Albion St, Brassall. He was subsequently hit by a car driven by a young woman who failed to see the police try to flag her down. He later died of head injuries in the Ipswich Hospital.

Who tampered with a roadside memorial?

On 4th of July this year, a young woman was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Buffalo, New York.  Her family constructed a shrine for her at the site.  I find it interesting that the local news (WIVB-TV) chose to focus this spot on the impropriety of tampering with a memorial.  While other news coverage I’ve found that deals with shrines tends to use the shrine as the hook to catch readers’/viewers’ attention and then changing the focus to the cause of death, this clip actually features the shrine as the main subject.  Although the controversy about shrines and their placement is mentioned in the clip, the clip does seem to favor the idea that it is not appropriate to deface/remove/or tamper with a shrine.  I’m curious about this relatively recent interest in memorialization and shrines and their sacred place in public space–why now, I wonder?

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.

A shrine for the living / A shrine for the dead

In light of a thoughtful and insightful comment left for the last post on the shrine for Amy Winehouse, I’m sharing this article I found about a memorial for a crash that happened on Long Island (New York City area)  in October of this year.

The crash killed a mother and her young son and the memorial was established soon after the accident.  Because it was for a mother and child, the majority of offerings left were balloons and stuffed animals (along with the traditional flowers and votive candles).

I do not know who began the shrine, or who contributed offerings to it, but as was pointed out in the article by a police officer who responded–everyone knows families with children and many people have children themselves.  Therefore, an accident of this type, where a mother and her child are killed and two other children are left behind (along with the other family members), touches a particularly sensitive place in one’s heart.

Each and every spontaneous shrine is for an individual person–with a life and loved ones who will miss them dearly.  That is one of the reasons I am interested in covering this topic–because I believe the shrines should not simply be seen as a sea of roadside crosses with no individuality and distinctiveness, but as unique and personal occurrences.   However, I have noticed that when a parent and young child die together, the shrines that emerge are often some of the most ornate and community-created.

To speak to the comment left yesterday, it is important to point out that the shrines are for the living as much as they are for the dead.  They are a space for the living to commune with those they have lost, to continue to share experiences and beloved objects with them, and often to come together with strangers.  A shrine is a place for loved ones to meet and a place to invite passers-by to come and take part in the understanding that comes of shared experience, if not the mourning.

With that, here is the article:

Makeshift Memorial Lines Oceanview Boulevard As Police Continue To Investigate Fatal Manorville Crash

October 11, 2011 8:18 AM
A makeshift memorial marks the site of the fatal Manorville crash (credit: CBS 2)

A makeshift memorial marks the site of the fatal Manorville crash (credit: CBS 2)

MANORVILLE, NY (CBSNewYork) — Police are still investigating a fatal crash on Long Island that killed a woman and her 7-year-old son and sent her two other children to the hospital.

Police say 30-year-old Keri Trinca and her 7-year-old son Jason died in Manorville on Saturday.

Trinca was driving her Honda Accord on Oceanview Boulevard when police say the vehicle was broadsided by a van.

One Suffolk County police sergeant says he knows how badly the family is hurting from their loss.

keri trinca Makeshift Memorial Lines Oceanview Boulevard As Police Continue To Investigate Fatal Manorville Crash Keri Trinca and her son Jason (credit: CBS 2)

“It’s never easy. Something like this is definitely hard,” said detective Sgt. James McGuinness. “We all have children families. This is a terrible thing to have to go through right now.”

A makeshift memorial of balloons and stuffed animals mark the site of the crash.

Trinca’s 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son are at Stony Brook University Medical Center. The driver and passenger of the van weren’t seriously injured.

Police are still trying to figure out which driver was at fault.


Sunrise and sunset: the ghost bike for William Daniel Rodriguez

A little while ago, I was walking with some friends from Greenpoint to the Brooklyn Bridge.  About halfway through the walk we neared the Williamsburg Bridge.  The East River was to our right and a strong wind was blowing down Kent Avenue.  Chained to a signpost near a Jewish community center was a small, spray-painted white bike with flat tires.

I recognized it as a ghost bike, or a memorial bicycle placed at the site where a cyclist was killed, usually by another vehicle.  The first time I saw a ghost bike was in Amsterdam.  It was surrounded by flowers and stood out bright against the sea of bikes that continuously travel through the city.  This particular bike is quite small–it looks like it is meant for a child.

The writing on the post behind the bike reads:








You will always

Be in our



Big Will

The writing on the bike itself reads:





10:39 pm

Your welcome to take a balloon and let it go in his name.

The writing is done in black permanent marker.  The bike is adorned with blue  and white ribbons.  Above the bike, attached to the post is a set of large fake flower hearts, one white and one red.  In front of the tires are a set of four votive candles, one of which has a pair of cigarette lighters in it.  In front of the bike, there is an old, water-stained copy of the children’s book When Sheep Sleep, which has “for Danny” written on the cover.

From the writing, it appears that William Daniel Rodriguez, perhaps known as “Danny” died when he was 18 years old.  I’m guessing he may have been a smoker because of the cigarette lighters, but it is equally possible that the lighters have been left there for people to use for the votive candles.  Although I believe he was 18 when he died, the kid’s book and kid’s bike lead me to believe that his parents and other family members are the ones who set up the memorial.  He is remembered in his role as a child in a family, rather than as a friend or lover.

After returning home, I went onto the Ghost Bikes website to see if I could find out any additional information about this particular bike.  There is a page for William Rodriguez, but the information does not closely match the bike I saw.  The location is correct, but the date of death does not seem to be correct.  The page says: “A ghost bike appeared on Kent Avenue on October 8, 2009 to remember William Rodriguez, killed by the drunk driver of a truck in 2002.”  While it may be true that the bike appeared in 2009, the bike itself refers to William’s “sunset” as happening in 2007, not 2002.  The page also lists his age at death as 19 years old, whereas if the bike is correct, he would have died about a week before his 19th birthday.

This leaves me wondering if the information for the other bikes in New York City is correct. Of course, I can’t be sure whether the bike or the page is correct, but I’m inclined to trust the shrine itself.  Therefore, I’ve decided to do a bit of traveling.  I am going to visit each of the 80 ghost bikes listed for NYC (and any I pass along the way) and record the information I find on and around the bikes.  I’ll photograph the bikes as well.  I’m not sure what I’ll do once I’ve visited them all, but I feel like I should take a look at these memorials myself to see what I can learn about each individual.

The list can be found here.  To see a map of the bikes, look here.

Now– to the streets of New York I go in search of the white bikes…

Post Navigation


Charting the borderlands between religion and pop culture

Cemeteries and Cemetery Symbols

Exploring the meaning of cemetery symbols and other graveyard mysteries. For genealogy sleuths, taphophiles and goth kids.

Miss Tanya Jean

Just a girl and her superlative words.

The Object Ethnography Project

Creative Experiments in Critical Practice: Art, Anthropology, and Economy



Rousing Departures

'Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.' – Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, 1930.

The Mouth of The Kenai

The Mouth of The Kenai

Looking at the West

A personal blog of photography and commentary by Andrew McAllister.

Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies

in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States

The Lonely Walkers Blog

Challenging the idea of distance


I eat cheese, I run from zombies, and I do therapy


Just another WordPress.com site

Death Be Not Proud

American deathways exlored

Next Gen Memorials

Ideas for planning a funeral, memorial or celebration of life

War Memorials Archive Blog

Features and news about war memorials in the UK

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


...of the one of a kind

Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies

in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States