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The Magazine: Ritual making meaning when death meets life

The Magazine: Ritual making meaning when death meets life

by Lizette Larson-Miller


You’ve seen them, probably lots of them…white crosses with a name and date set up on the shoulder of a busy highway, elaborate front yard arrangements of candles and stuffed animals, urban sidewalks dotted with candles and liquor bottles. Generally grouped together under the title “roadside shrines”, these places, tributes to local death, are holy ground. But what do they mean, to those who pass by and to those who construct them? And what might the church learn from these interactive memorials?


I had the luxury of exploring roadside shrines as a sabbatical year Luce Fellow a few years back, an opportunity that grew from my own curiosity about many local shrines in California and expanded to include an international conversation. These types of spontaneous memorials are common throughout the world, and seem to have become an almost expected reaction to local tragedies, one that transcends geography and ethnicity in the people engaged and in the physical makeup of the shrines. They represent a fundamental human need to set aside a place where a wide variety of emotions can be focused, at a place where there has been a death, or a reminder of a nearby death. What I set out to learn that year was not what I, a scholar of early Christian martyr shrines, think these contemporary shrines should mean, but what the people who constructed them and visited them found and expressed in these holy places. In order to do that I visited many shrines, remained present and listened, and people talked. Here are a few of the things I learned from these visits.


I found it helpful to group what I learned from participants’ reactions into seven potential motivations, neither as a definitive list nor as categories separate from one another, but simply as a way to understand how people found meaning in engaging in these shrines. First was solidarity with the deceased and particularly their family. The vehicle for this was often a sense of identification with the remaining family, especially when the deceased was a child. One family to another, one parent to another, a message frequently left in written form. Second was commemoration, engaging with the shrine as a way to remember. Here the solidarity with the family took the form of promising not to forget the deceased or the suffering of the family. To not be forgotten was clearly a hope of all those who gathered at the shrine, for the deceased and for themselves. The third motivation for participation could be characterized as the need for reassurance, or perhaps behind that, of fear. Fear was expressed in disbelief that this could happen to people so much like the participants and that this might happen to them, confronting the issue of one’s own mortality. The reassurance seemed to take the form that this tragedy had indeed happened to someone else, and visiting the shrine was a reality check that it had not happened to the visitors; they were still alive. The fourth most commonly expressed emotion was the hope for justice. By gathering at this shrine in solidarity, justice might emerge for a couple reasons. First, it would raise public awareness of the injustice that had happened, and second, the killer(s) would know that the victims were supported and remembered. Closely linked to justice for the deceased, however, was the expression of revenge. Although not as common as the responses above, revenge against the killer or revenge against society for allowing this type of violence to occur was expressed both verbally and in the written notes left at the shrine. The sixth motivation was one that, like revenge, was less frequent. I’ll call it a desire to engage in something larger than oneself, for lack of a better term, and it took two forms. The first was a rather blatant desire for personal engagement with the media, a type of ‘fame by extension.’ The second form was subtler. Participants expressed the desire to gather with others because of an energy that was present, a place where a combination of curiosity and a craving for excitement might be found at the place of a murder and at a gathering of people. Coming to this public shrine allowed individuals to break out of everyday life and be part of something more exciting and potentially very public via the media. Lastly, there was the desire to be at this place, to stand where death took place, or where the focus of so much pain and prayer was still ongoing. Often the partially articulated reason was because the shrine was capable of allowing them into places only accessible through individual imagination or altered states of consciousness. It functioned as “holy ground,” in that it was set aside, even temporarily, for purposes other than those of daily practical use, a place outside of place. Verbally this was often expressed in making a connection between this place and other places and times people thought of as holy. Kinesthetically it was expressed in touching; touching the ground, the things, and leaving objects behind, as though all of these could make a unity of a physical place and an individual human being.


What are we, as Church, to learn from these holy places and from their participants? My hypothesis is that the phenomenon of public shrines may be a positive challenge to the Church to continue articulating a balance between hospitality and mystery, and may contribute to exploring ways that liturgical space facilitates the integration of personal prayer and corporate worship. What might these look like?

Our worship spaces have often bought into the idea that a single unified space where everyone is encouraged to do everything all together all the time is best. A consequence of this is that many of our church buildings end up with all the “holy” up on a stage in front, and with all ritual activities taking place there, out of reach, literally.

What if we had multiple places to see and experience?

What if we had proportional spaces for smaller gatherings? What if we had water that could be felt, candles that could be lit, statues that could be touched, icons that could be kissed? What if, as the world of semiotics teaches us, we valued places that allowed for the performance of an interaction with place, with specific objects in the place, by those who are invested in the time and place? How do we mark and name holy ground?

What if we recognized that true hospitality acknowledges that not everyone engages in the same way? Some use verbal language to pray, others use nonverbal. How will gesture, movement, sight, sound and smell invite others to encounter the living God in our church spaces? How can people leave something of themselves to continue the prayer – in a candle, a prayer request?

What if we acknowledge the complementarity of popular devotions and official liturgy, the messiness of the former and the demands of the latter, and allowed them their related and yet distinct purposes and methods?

Finally, being at a roadside shrine is a good reminder that not everyone is ready to come to the front. Public shrines make no demands for instant full participation. How do we allow people to feel welcomed but not coerced? How do we meet the world in liminal spaces and rituals that acknowledge human beings as spiritual-ritual beings drawn to the Other?

The Rev. Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller received her PhD in liturgy and history from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, where she is currently a visiting scholar. Lizette is also a priest of the Diocese of California, assisting in several parishes (and visiting roadside shrines).


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