The Story of the Stuff: Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation

What Are Temporary Memorials?

In the Western world, spontaneous shrines are a “primary way to mourn those who have died a sudden or shocking death, and to acknowledge the circumstances of the deaths” (Santino, 2006, p. 5). As Professor Erika Doss explains, in the wake of sudden tragedies, people often leave objects at the site of the event. These collections of objects, referred to as "temporary memorials" or "spontaneous shrines," have become a form of public grieving.

Coined by folklorist Jack Santino (1992) in an article about death ritual in Northern Ireland, the term “spontaneous shrines” refers to such phenomena as the Mourning Wall at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, the panoply of messages on plywood barriers and missing persons posters at “Ground Zero” in New York City following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and even the temporary roadside memorials and urban corner shrines of teddy bears, votive candles, and cards following automobile accidents or drive-by shootings. 

This practice was first heavily theorized in Santino’s seminal book, Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death (2006) and “spontaneous shrine” has hence become both a widely used and contested term. Newer theorists, such as Doss (2008, 2010) and Sturken (2007), opt instead for the phrase “temporary memorial,” due to both the often secular dimensions of this kind of commemoration and to emphasize the ephemeral but not necessarily spontaneous nature of the practice. Other common terms include “performative memorials,” “makeshift memorials,” “ephemeral memorials,” and “spontaneous memorials.”

While memorial practice itself is millennia old, the contemporary practice of creating large-scale temporary memorials in the Western world exploded in the 1990s, growing and evolving alongside the 24-hour news cycle and birth of the Internet, and is largely characterized by leaving teddy bears, cards, candles, and other items at sites of violent death (Milne, 2009). 

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  1. Interview with Erika Doss