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 “shrines”

Occupy Oakland: A shrine for USMC vet Scott Olsen

On October 25th, 2011, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Scott Olsen was injured in a conflict with police at the Occupy Oakland movement (a northern California affiliate of Occupy Wall Street).  Shortly thereafter, a shrine was erected to recognize his injury.

Spontaneous shrines are most often erected at the location a person has died.  Especially when the death is of a prominent public figure, the shrines are also often located where the person lived or spent most of her or his time.  For example, in the case of Princess Diana’s death, shrines were erected both near the tunnel in Paris where her car crash occurred and at the palaces of the royal family in the U.K.

Although many death-site shrines are created by family members and close acquaintances of the deceased, certain deaths call for a more participatory or public response.  One of the most fascinating and moving shrines I’ve ever seen was located in Potsdam, Germany following the fatal beating of an Ethiopian-German man.  The attack sparked extreme controversy over post-WWII identity, racism, and neo-Nazism in Germany (more about this shrine to come in a later post).  Particularly when a death is highly controversial or socially unsettling, the resulting shrine tends to be a community affair, rather than being left to the family.  Because the death itself demands a response from the community, the shrine may becomes the forum for that response, allowing people to come together and speak out.

This shrine for Scott Olsen is very interesting for a number of reasons.  News of his injury (he was hit in the face by a “projectile,” possibly a tear gas canister) went viral almost immediately.  His status as a USMC veteran of the Iraq War makes his injury a potentially controversial issue.  Not only does it bring to light the occasionally violent outcomes of the clashes between police and protesters, it also highlights the diversity of the protesters.  His injury was taken up by certain protesters as a poster case of police violence– not only are people getting hurt, veterans are getting hurt.  Others not  involved with the protests have branded his injury an unfortunate outcome of anti-American activities– he was patriotic, and now he is not, so this is what happens.

The shrine has become one of the rallying spots for the movement in support of Olsen.  There are dozens of votive candles, photos of Olsen, pro-vet posters, and flowers.  One of the unique features is the series of posters calling for people to contribute money to a fund helping to pay for Olsen’s hospital bills.  The shrine is not for a death, but for a life, perhaps not even so much for a person, but for an event, for an injury…

Several videos of the shrine have been posted on youtube, photos of the shrine have appeared on several tumblr and flickr feeds, and the incident has been featured in the headlines of numerous papers including the Washington Post, the U.K. paper The Guardian, and the Huffington Post.  There are several Scott Olsen Facebook pages including Scott OlsenWe are all Scott Olsen, and For Scott Olsen.

Welcome to the world of spontaneous shrines!

From curbs in residential areas to remote country highways—from treacherous mountain faces in national parks to sites of political violence, spontaneous shrines are everywhere!

They serve a variety of commemorative and performative functions, not the least of which is to provide a space for mourning the unexpected dead.  Though they are often referred to as makeshift or temporary memorials, I do not believe these creations are haphazard or makeshift, nor are they necessarily temporary.  Although they are part of a greater “memorial culture,” to call them simply memorials is to overlook the sacrality of such a ritual space (I will go into more detail about spontaneous shrines as sacred spaces in my next post!).  For this reason, I usually prefer to use folklorist Jack Santino’s term, “spontaneous shrine,” to describe each of these.  They are spontaneous insofar as the creation of them is not prescribed, is not predictable, and is not necessarily performed by any specific person.

In instances of death under “morally questionable” circumstances (such as hate crimes) or in certain socio-political climates, spontaneous shrines are often used as spaces for protest.  The site of death of an individual becomes a place for remembering, re-visiting, and often re-claiming the deaths of others.  It becomes a place where an individual death may stand in protest for a cause.

Quite recently, a number of shrines have popped up in the news.  Most notably, after the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on October 5th, several spontaneous shrines were erected outside of Apple stores across the country.

Additionally, the past two days (November 1st–All Saints’ Day and November 2nd–All Souls’ Day) brought the festival of Dia de los Muertos, or the Mexican Day of the Dead.  A key part of this celebration is the building of altarcitos, or personal altars for people who have died.

So, if you’ve ever seen a Day of the Dead celebration, been to an Apple store in the month of October, or driven down a US Highway, you’ve probably seen a spontaneous shrine!

In this blog, I’ll not only be searching for the personal narratives behind the shrines, but I’ll be exploring the ways in which they influence, enhance, and collide with the communities they are in.  I’ll be talking to the people who build shrines, drive by shrines, take down shrines, and more.

I hope you’ll find these stories as interesting and thought-provoking as I do.  Thanks for reading and please check back soon!

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Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics...They are, I believe, the voice of the people." --Jack Santino


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