In May 2003, the city of Oakland, Calif., had already reached its 44th homicide of the year. At one intersection three young men were tending a shrine set up to remember their friend, killed in a drive-by shooting. The shrine consisted of a picture of the deceased from much earlier school days, cigarettes, cognac and several candles. What does the shrine mean to you? I asked. It’s a way to show honor to Lamar, to remember him where it happened. Have you been here long? Yeah, we’ll stay all day and then drink the cognac. Will you drink it here? Yeah, this is where it happenedyou need to drink it here.
If you have walked around urban neighborhoods or driven on highways in the last few years, you have certainly seen some of the ubiquitous roadside shrines that have proliferated throughout the country. Usually erected to commemorate a single death or a small group of related deaths, the memorials or shrines have emerged as an almost mandatory feature on the occasion of a murder or other tragedy.
Basking in the luxury of a sabbatical year, I decided two years ago to spend some time doing on-site research to try to understand what was going on in the minds of the people engaged in the shrines. I had spent a fair amount of the time during my doctoral work in liturgical theology studying how Christians in earlier centuries interacted with shrines, particularly those of martyrs and saints, and there seemed to be some interesting parallels, even though the contemporary shrines and memorials are not exclusively or overtly Christian. Coming from a world of liturgy and theological reflection, I saw in the memorials a type of popular religious activity, at least tangentially related to the liturgical action of the church. Even the use of the terms shrines and memorials by newspapers and television reporters echoed the classic Christian understanding of these words. It has been an interesting journey and learning experience, in many ways confirming what American sociologists of religion and ritual theorists have been proposing for the last 10 yearsthat something is shifting in the spiritual landscape of this country, as well as in other lands.
The shrine set up on the front lawn of Laci Peterson’s house in Modesto, Calif., was a very busy place in the months between her disappearance and the trial of her husband for murder. At this sprawling shrine for Laci and her unborn child, the handwritten and typed notes included both prayer texts and original poems, including this one, titled Laci:
Although I didn’t know you, my heart is filled with pain
Knowing that we’ll never see your smiling face again
You started out a stranger, but soon became well known
When all throughout the area your loving smile was shown.
During my fieldwork throughout 2003 and beyond, five general characteristics of roadside shrines stood out. First, unlike national or civic memorials commemorating war victims, national events or other more universal places of engagement, shrines of this type did not lend themselves to generic commemoration; each was concrete and specific to the persons and the place. In an area where a number of murders of children had occurred, each shrine remembered the children of a particular household. On the wrapper of a cut flower arrangement, four children had written In loving memory, Harmony and Nick! You will always remain in our hearts, signing their names as classmates and placing the flowers in the middle of a frontyard shrine.
Second, these shrines were tangible expressions of very local engagements. Even in the case of a tragedy that drew a broader circle of people because of media coverage, most of the items left at the shrine and most of the people visiting, reading, standing around or speaking were localsneighbors, friends or community members. At the sidewalk shrine for 10-year-old Grant, shot and killed in his home by his father, the neighbors set up the initial memorial and maintained it for several months. One neighbor said at its inception, according to The San Francisco Chronicle: This memorial is mostly for us. We all want to do as much as we can to help, but all we can do today, it seems, is stand vigil.
Third, there seemed to be little or no coordination to the gathering of material objects found at each site. In a grass-roots approach, people simply brought what they had or felt to be appropriate. I moved between awe and bemusement at the combinations of articlesOur Lady of Guadalupe next to stuffed bears, crucifixes and New Age crystals, Christian prayers and oddly written poems. They seemed to represent not only the individuals or families who brought them, but a type of pan-religious, pluralistic, inclusive remembrance, one that invited in all participants by any number of different avenues. If the crucifix did not engage you, perhaps the crystals would. The lack of institutionalization or coordinated arrangement gave the impression of a democratic and equalizing activity that crossed potential dividers of economic, educational, gender and ethnic difference. At the same time, identical objects or categories of objects were present in almost all the sites, raising intriguing questions as to whether people learned how to construct shrines by seeing them elsewhere.
Fourth, roadside shrines are most often temporary. Very little remained at the majority of the shrines several months after they were set up. In some cases, like the site of a car crash in the mountains of California, the spontaneous shrine at the place where three family members lost their lives to a drunk driver was renewed with an official California Highway Patrol sign against drunk driving. The erection of the permanent sign led to another memorial service at the site a year after the accident and a subsequent reconstruction of the unofficial shrine building at the foot of the official marker. But in most cases, the shrines would simply disappear through decay or removal by family members. Rarely was there an institutional move to tear down the shrines, such as the sidewalk shrine to Juan and Victor Flores, killed by a truck in Park Slope, Brooklyn. According to The New York Times, the Sanitation Department stated, So long as the shrine is kept clean and out of the way of foot traffic, city agencies are making a policy of overlooking it.
Fifth, comments of people about the shrine (oral and written) revealed that their engagement with the place was often based on very different motivations, ranging from a desire for justice and commemoration to a sort of fame by extension. The most common motivation seemed to be solidarity with both the deceased and the family. This was expressed in notes and prayers addressed to the deceased, and by parents explaining to their children why they were there: We’re here to let the family know that we care about them. At the front altar shrine of a 10-year-old girl kidnaped from her home in Santa Clara, Calif., a note stated, We are praying for you and for the safe return of your daughterstay strong. Sometimes solidarity with the family took the form of a promise not to forget the deceased or the suffering of the family, as well. Reassurance or fear was also common, expressed in terms of disbelief that this could happen to people so much like the participants. I was particularly struck by the numbers of young pregnant women at the Laci Peterson shrine who said out loud that it could have been them. Articulating that this tragedy had indeed happened to someone else and not to those visiting the shrine seemed to offer a sort of comfort.
Another motivation I’ll call a desire to engage in something larger than oneself. Some exhibited a rather blatant desire for personal engagement with the media, a type of fame by extension. When television reporters appeared, people would come out of cars and houses to be seen and, if possible, heard. Some participants expressed the desire to gather with others because of an energy perceived to be present. The shrine offered an emotional opportunity to break out of life as usual and be part of something more exciting, more public, that clearly appealed to a number of people gathered around.
The desire to be at this place, to stand where the death occurred, or where so much pain and prayer were still focused, also drew people. It seemed that the physical location itself allowed people into an emotional and spiritual space not often visited. The shrine functioned as holy ground in that it was set aside, even though only temporarily, for purposes other than those of daily practical use, a place outside of place. Kinesthetically this connection was expressed in touching the things arranged at the shrine and in leaving objects behind. People also spoke more freely than is often the case in a gathering of strangers. At the Point Isabel shrine for Laci Peterson, erected where her body had been found, one woman began a conversation by asking if this was the place and then proceeded to talk about her own fear of her husband and her fear of death, prompted by the growing sense that Laci Peterson’s husband had most likely been responsible for the murders. At other shrines, people’s desire to talk about death appeared to have been freed by the space of the shrine. People seemed to have an inclusive and liberating sense of being part of something that crossed beyond the unstated limits of the ritual communities in which they usually moved.
Applying these observations to the world of liturgy and church buildings closer to daily experience, one may ask what the liturgical churches might learn from this widespread phenomenon. Two thoughts come to mind. The first is to reflect on how our own liturgical spaces both allow for the primary corporate prayer that is our Sunday and daily liturgical priority and provide space for private prayer. Certainly private prayer is done in many places, including the corporate worship space of any given church building. But private prayer space that is proportional to individuals and allows for the engagement of prayer, whether with the help of visual aids like icons or candles or in a number of other ways that allow kinesthetically active prayer, has not been a priority of church renovation, certainly not in the American bishops’ document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978). While there is more mention of devotional space in the newer Built of Living Stones (2000), it is not a primary focus of that document either. Perhaps our liturgical spaces need to be somewhat more complex, more ambiguous, more comfortable with multiple sacred spaces and foci. Cathedrals have traditionally had this complexity of space, allowing people to draw near as much as they are able. The new cathedral in Los Angeles offers a long pilgrimage route to the heart of the liturgical space, filled with chapels and private areas that offer glimpses of the vastness of the interior. But even smaller churches with private prayer spaces or extended entryways, or useful and used narthex spaces, can allow for this same plurality of foci.
The second conclusion to be gleaned from the roadside shrines and spontaneous memorials might be to re-emphasize the church building as a sign of the church in the world, particularly through the return of a liminal space between the wider world and the interior of the church building. Occasionally one reads of churches that have this liminal space, a hospitable way for people to test the waters of church without coming all the way inside, literally and figuratively. Whether this consists of labyrinths in the front courtyard, opportunities for leaving prayers of petitions in a basket outside or accessible outdoor stations of the cross, such an offering might take advantage of a cultural desire to engage with holy ground and be truly evangelistic at the same time, inviting people to come farther inside. It certainly is a Christian tradition with historical roots; medieval churches used the courtyard and the steps for many events, some directly linked to the liturgy inside the church building and others only remotely connected. Early churches held vigils and hosted pilgrims all around their sanctuaries proper.
Roadside shrines seem to be rising out of a deeply felt need for people to express many different emotions when confronted with untimely and violent deaths. Seen in their contextthe shifts in spirituality and the massive confrontation with the reality of death and human frailty that Sept. 11, 2001, presented to the United Statesthese grassroots shrines deserve the attention of those interested in how people pray and what possibilities they might present for churches.