A Modern Response to Tragedy and Disaster
(Preliminary Observations Regarding the Spontaneous Shrines
Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001)
Department of Anthropology
Texas A&M University
The hundreds and perhaps thousands of spontaneous shrines which have sprung up in
New York City and Washington, D. C., as well as at other sites all over America and the world in
response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, have attracted the attention of TV viewers and
mourners throughout the world. These communal and spontaneous performances of grief are a
way for people to work out a personal connection to an otherwise numbing catastrophe and are
bringing comfort to thousands and thousands of people during this disaster. In an attempt to
help put this new grieving ritual into a broader context, in this essay I would like to share with
the scholarly community my knowledge of this increasingly widespread phenomenon, including a
brief overview of the associated "cybershrines," or online photos of material shrines, memorial
webpages, and online condolence message boards and virtual candles. In addition to some
background and tentative interpretation, I will conclude with suggestions for
collection/documentation and suggestions for future research.
The following remarks are based on my personal experience as Principal Investigator of
the Bonfire Memorabilia Collection Project at Texas A&M University, which I organized and
directed following the collapse of the student bonfire in November, 1999, which killed twelve of
our students. My subsequent research regarding spontaneous shrines at disaster sites has
involved not only an extensive search of the pertinent scholarly and popular literature and media
coverage of various shrines, but also personal visits to inspect the artifact collections and consult
with persons responsible for the artifacts collected from the shrines for Princess Diana, the
Oklahoma City bombing, and the shootings at Columbine High School. My impressions of the
spontaneous shrines following the New York City/Washington terrorist attacks are based on
media and internet coverage of them and information from CityLore, a folklore organization in
New York City; I have not personally inspected any of these New York City shrines. I am
currently on research leave from teaching at Texas A&M University in order to write a
book-length study of the spontaneous shrine phenomenon.
Modern people respond to the emotional aftermath of disaster and catastrophe in a
variety of ways, ranging from wearing variously colored ribbons to candlelight vigils to group
singing to the creation of spontaneous shrines at or near the site of the event. These spontaneous
shrines are among the deepest expressions of our shared humanity, combining ritual, pilgrimage,
performance art, popular culture, and traditional material culture. The acres of flowers and other
memorabilia in the streets of London after the death of Princess Diana, "The Fence" at Oklahoma
City, the crosses silhouetted against the sky on the hill behind Columbine High School, as well as
the memorabilia which have become part of our image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorialall of
these iconic images have taught the world that spontaneous shrines are not only an appropriate,
but an expected response to disaster. Roadside shrines and crosses which people erect to mark
the sites of fatal car wrecks are spontaneous shrines on a smaller, more personal level. Common
throughout the American southwest, where they are known as descansos, these roadside shrines
now appear throughout the United States and are also common in various European countries, as
well as in Australia. Ever-changing shrines have become a permanent feature of such celebrity
burial sites as Elvis Presley's Graceland; the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris; and throughout
Corpus Christi, Texas, the home of slain Tejano music star Selena. In the creation of these
dynamic shrines, people are calling on the vast panoply of our cultural repertoire to create a
tactile and visual expression of our connectedness to one another. The cybershines extend this
cultural landscape into cyberspace and the emerging realm of virtual culture.
Shrines expressmetaphorically as well as literally--our attempts to come to grips with
events which numb our emotions and defy explanation. The shrines reduce the overwhelming
enormity of the catastrophe to a more manageable human scale, thus helping to make the event
more comprehensible, especially when the emotions evoked are new and raw. Placing a memento
at a shrine gives people a sense of purpose, making them feel less helpless and powerless. For
many people, placing a memento at a shrine is an act as sacred and comforting as lighting a candle
at a church altar. The shrines are a metaphoric threshold which represents the end of numbness
and the beginning of the ability to take action.
Given the vagaries of weather and the fragile nature of the paper and other organic
components such as cut flowers, shrines are temporary. Spontaneous shrines lose their emotional
impact and symbolic integrity when they become soggy, windblown, and tattered. Removal of
the ephemeral shrines signals a return to secular status of the temporarily sacred landscape
which was appropriated by the shrine. Weather permitting, spontaneous shrines generally stay in
place throughout the liminal period between death and burial. Once the funerals begin, funeral
services and gravesites replace the shrines as sites of pilgrimage to leave flowers and other
With each new catastrophe, idiosyncratic, variant shrines develop. In part due to media
coverage, we have come to expect these shrines to follow in the wake of otherwise unbearable
tragedies. In doing their job of reporting on and documenting tragedies and catastrophes, the
media flood us with visual images, images which we demand so that we can see events for
ourselves and try to begin to make our own sense of them. The shrines are understandably
covered by the media, often as backdrops to T. V. voice-overs. Still photographs of shrines
illustrate many feature stories in magazines and newspapers, in part because of the emotional
impact of the photographs. The shrines have become such an integral part of the aftermath of the
terrorist attacks that the cover of The New Yorker magazine (October 1, 2001) featured a drawing
depicting a shrine to firefighters in the background as faceless pedestrians hurry by.
The shrines within sight of the Pentagon and at various sites in New York
City--including the Armory, Union Square, Washington Square, Times Square, the Promenade
along the Brooklyn waterfront and at firehouses and churches throughout the city--as well as at
embassies and other American facilities abroad--are a predictable response to the terrorist attacks.
"Ground Zero" in New York City is too large and security is too tight there as well as at the
Pentagon for the shrines to emerge in close proximity to the attack sites. The shrines following
the terrorist attacks of September 11wherever they are located--are the most dramatic
expression to date of this modern ritual of grief and grace.
Terminology, Typology and Iconography
The media often use the term "makeshift memorial" to refer to these shrines. I propose
that "spontaneous shrines" is a more appropriate designation because:
- the sites function as sites of ritual pilgrimage and are, therefore, sacred shrines rather than secular memorials. They emerge quickly, often within a few hours of the event. In contrast, memorials come later and express a quieter, more deliberate a
nd usually official response. Memorials are often intended to be permanent and are aimed toward a future audience; spontaneous shrines are ephemeral and
have an immediate audience. Memorials are much more passive; the spontaneous shrines are
- These sacred folk art assemblages are not "makeshift." As pure expressions of public sentiment, spontaneous shrines are unmediated folk art assemblages with no official guidelines or restrictions regarding where the shrines are placed or what they c
ontain. At first glance, they may appear to be chaotic, but closer inspection reveals a coherent organizational principle in the arrangement of memorabilia which usually results in an aesthetically satisfying appearance.
The most common focus for the development of a spontaneous shrine is a prominent
vertical surface, such as a fence or a wall, on which arrangements of memorabilia can be
displayed. The horizontal surface supporting and adjacent to the wall or fence is also covered
with memorabilia. The main pilgrimage and shrine site after the Oklahoma City bombing is now
called "The Fence," and "The Wall" is the affectionate nickname for the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial. The fences in London surrounding Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace were
the primary locations of shrines following the death of Princess Diana. The orange mesh security
fence surrounding the site of the collapse of the Texas A&M University bonfire became the focus
of the outpouring of memorabilia which followed that tragedy. As these shrines adjacent to and
upon walls and fences grow, bouquets of cut flowers in cellophane wrappers flow like waves,
breaking upon the vertical barrier. People place their floral and other offerings carefully to
maintain this layered, wavy effect. Further demonstrating the deliberate--not makeshift--creation
and development of spontaneous shrines is the complex repetition of images which function as
mini-shrines within the larger assemblage.
The artifacts placed in spontaneous shrines are not random. My preliminary survey of
various artifact assemblages revealed a consistent basic "vocabulary" which consists of flowers,
votive candles, and a wide range of popular and material culture items appropriate to the event,
including balloons, teddy bears and other stuffed animals, photographs, inscribed t-shirts,
drawings, banners, posters, and other written expressions. Religious paraphernalia such as
crosses, crucifixes, and angels are also frequently included. Many shrines contain books of
condolence or blank sheets of plyboard or posters for passers-by to write down their personal
inscriptions. Signing formal books of condolence at St. James Palace and elsewhere in London
and throughout the world became an integral feature of the communal mourning behavior after the
death of Princess Diana. The spiral notebooks and stapled sheets of paper which are the norm at
most spontaneous shrines are much more informal.
Shrines usually develop as close to the site of the disaster as feasible. However, as
exemplified by the shrines at the various American embassies throughout the world following the
World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, they are not restricted to proximity to the disaster site.
After the first memorabilia is laid on the ground or attached to a wall or fence in the vicinity of
the affected site or some other appropriate place, other items quickly follow in association. As
more and more memorabilia accumulate, the site assumes a dual purpose:
Visitors to the sites are understandably quiet and subdued and are gentle with one another, often standing aside for someone to place an offering or making room for those who stop to pray and comforting those who weep.
- a place to leave a ritual offering, and
- a pilgrimage site to come to and see what others have left.
Each shrine reflects the community most heavily and immediately affected by the event.
Teddy bears and other stuffed animals were especially common and appropriate in the Oklahoma
City shrine because so many children in the Murrah Building daycare center were killed or
grievously injured. Stuffed animals also appeared at the shrines marking the site where Susan
Smith drowned her two young sons in the fall of 1994 in South Carolina as well as at the home in
Houston where Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the summer of 2001. Teddy bears
and other stuffed animals also appeared throughout the various Princess Diana shrines, in part
acknowledging her work on behalf of the world's children.
The shrines on the campus of Texas A&M University following the fatal collapse of the student bonfire in November, 1999, were filled with Aggie paraphernalia, ranging from caps and t-shirts in school colors to football ticket stubs and "grodes" (dirty clo
thing which students wear while building the bonfire) and "pots" (hard hats the students wear while building the bonfire). A shrine developed on the sidewalk in
front of the TriBecA apartment building of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette,
after they were killed in a plane crash in 1999. Photographs of Kennedy and his wife, and written
messages were among the most common mementos placed in this shrine. The shrines in response
to the terrorist attacks predictably are dominated by patriotic symbols, especially American
flags, as well as votive candles, flowers, photographs, and written messages. Stuffed animals
were not apparent in the early stages of most of the shrines following the terrorist attacks but
began to appear later, perhaps as offerings left by children.
Perhaps the most dramatic shrine in the wake of the terrorist attacks is the wall of
photographs of the missing at the Armory in New York City, which has received extensive media
coverage. Judging from televised images and news commentaries and interviews, this display did
not originate as a deliberate shrine but started instead as a desperate attempt by families and
friends to do whatever they could to get information about their missing loved ones. As more
and more photographs accumulated along the walls and other surfaces, the photographs became a
pilgrimage site for those who wanted to see the spontaneous portrait gallery firsthand, maybe out
of curiosity but perhaps more as a means of connecting somehow with those previously
anonymous faces in this vast archive of grief. The enormity of our shared loss is manifested in
the literally thousands of images of happy, beautiful, beloved people looking back at us from
these candid snapshots and portraits, even as they are "once removed" for those of us who can
see them only through the TV and newspaper or magazine pictures of the pictures.
This unique shrine carries a myriad of complex messages. The photographs bring these
"missing" people together randomly, much as they were together in life and ultimately at the
moment of their deaths. As long as the pictures are on view, the people are not missing, they are
not lost. They are there, on that wall, in that shrine, looking back at us. The New York City
photographs echo a memorial display at the Oklahoma City National Museum. A separate room
in the museum features portraits and possessions of the 168 people who died in the terrorist
bombing. Here they are frozen in time, thus reminding us who they were before the
bombing--reminding us that they were not lost completely in that terrible explosion. Their
In the American Southwest, we have a saying for the meaning of the graffiti and
mementos left throughout the centuries on cliff faces and other sites by travellers and
explorers"Paso por aqui." "I passed by here." The New York City and Oklahoma City
photograph galleries wordlessly express the same idiom.
The internet provides a related venue for the creation of spontaneous shrines.
Cybershrines, or webpages containing photographs of the material shrines, photo montages, and
other associated images as well as websites for lighting virtual candles and virtual condolence
books flooded the internet by the hundreds and perhaps thousands following the terrorist
attacks. (See the upcoming article by Bruce Mason in this special issue of NewFolk for a more in-depth discussion of this phenomenon.) Cybershrines did not originate with the outpouring on the
internet following the terrorist attacks. They were common following the death of Princess
Diana and more recently followed in the wake of the death of NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt in
February, 2001. Cybershrines were also a common response to the collapse of the Texas A&M
University bonfire, the crash of the airplane carrying members of the Oklahoma State University
basketball team, and the recent spate of American school shootings, as well as the assassination
of Itzak Rabin in Jerusalem.
Collecting the memorabilia from spontaneous shrines is a complicated, painstaking, and
emotional process that necessarily entails wise local decisions regarding jurisdiction, conservation
needs, and long-term agreements for storage as well as funding to support the endeavor.
Methodologies of archiving, curation, and conservation of spontaneous shrines are complex and
generally require professional input, especially the conservation of fragile items damaged by
weather and exposure. At this time, there are only a few professionally managed collections of
artifacts from spontaneous shrines. The Littleton Historical Museum of Littleton, Colorado, has
the responsibility for a representative sample of artifacts from the Columbine High School
shrines. The Oklahoma City National Memorial is the repository for the artifacts collected from
The Fence that is part of the memorial there. The National Park Service daily collects the
artifacts left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and archives them chronologically by type.
The Smithsonian Institution presented an exhibit of selected items from the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial collection that was so popular it has become a permanent exhibit in the Museum of
American History. The artifacts from the Texas A&M University bonfire were collected by
adapting the methodology of salvage archaeology and are being processed by the Bonfire
Memorabilia Collection Project, under the auspices of the Department of Anthropology and the
Center for Ecological Archaeology at Texas A&M University. CityLore, a folklore organization
in New York City, is documenting the spontaneous shrines and other public expressions of grief
following the attack on the World Trade Center and has placed photographs of some of the
shrines on their website (http://www.citylore.org). Artifacts from various New York City shrines
may be collected for use in future exhibits. One such exhibit is in the planning stages by
Photography is the least complicated method of documenting spontaneous shrines.
Thorough documentation of the shrines in situ, before they are dismantled, should consist of two
types of photographs: documentary and illustration. Documentary photographs can record in a
straightforward manner the exact location of various artifacts, their relative scale/size, and their
relationships to one another. Illustrations capture more of the emotion and human suffering by
including images of people visiting the shrines or contributing to them. Both types of
photographs are essential for the thorough photo-documentation of shrines. Periodic or daily
photographs of the same shrine site can also document the dynamic changes that the shrine
undergoes as visitors add and sometimes re-arrange or take away artifacts. Periodic or serial
photographs also can document the condition of the shrine due to weather, wind, or other
destructive forces. Many of the artifacts left at shrines are so fragile that the only record of them
is sometimes the photographs, because the actual artifacts (especially paper) are often destroyed
by the weather.
Cybershrines and circulating e-mails are more difficult to document. Printing e-mails is
one approach, but the sheer volume of messages usually makes such a collection unmanageable.
Online archiving is a new approach, and therefore techniques and methodology are still evolving.
At Texas A&M University, we established Project BEAM (Bonfire Electronic Archive of
Memorabilia) in order to archive e-mails, cybershrines, and personal descriptions of artifacts.
The website is currently accessible by password only; the address is:
http://bonfire.tamu.edu/beam/. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress is
developing an online archive of the materials circulating online following the terrorist attacks; the
addresses are: email@example.com and
Suggestions for Further Research
Systematic research into the phenomenon of spontaneous shrines at disaster sites is the
only way we will come to fully understand and appreciate this new grieving ritual. Among the
kinds of research which have not thus far been undertaken are:
- Mapping the geographic spread of shrines, noting the date and time of initial
appearance whenever possible. For example, how quickly did shrines develop at various
American embassies throughout the world? Do we know the locations of all the shrines
following the New York City and Washington terrorist attacks, in these cities as well as
- Documenting the growth of specific shrines over time through serial photography
in order to more fully understand the aesthetic principles which govern their
development. For example, we know from early photographs that the shrine in Oklahoma
City began with either a single flower or palm fronds twined into the security fence. How
do other shrines begin?
- Maintaining inventories and/or representative collections of artifacts left at
- Noting when and by whom various shrines are dismantled. Which communities
choose to preserve selected artifacts? Where are they kept?
- Determining if, other than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial display at the
Smithsonian Institution, any other shrine artifacts have been put on subsequent display.
If so, how much time must elapse before the emotional and spiritual power of these
artifacts diminishes enough to treat them as objects in an artificial display?
While the phenomenon of spontaneous shrines has become a traditional
expression of grief only within the past few decades, these shrines will no doubt continue
to appear and become more complex in the years to come. Documenting these shrines
through photographs, inventories of contents, and archiving of selected artifacts can help
us to understand the full impact upon our culture of tragedies such as the terrorist
bombings of September 11, 2001.
I gratefully acknowledge the suggestions of Elena Martinez of CityFolk and the
following colleagues and graduate students in the hurried preparation of this manuscript:
Patricia Clabaugh, Robyn Lyle, Deb Dandridge, David Stewart, and Frank Stanford.
Clabaugh, Patricia. "Bonfire Memorabilia Collection Project 1999-2000: Informational Packet."
Department of Anthropology and Center for Ecological Archaeology, Texas A&M
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Grief in Contemporary America." Mortality (in press).
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Grider, Sylvia. "The Archaeology of Grief: Texas A&M's Bonfire Tragedy is a Sad Study in
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Linenthal, Ed. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. New York:
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Re:Public, eds. Planet Diana: Cultural Studies and Global Mourning. Nepean (Australia):
University of Western Sydney, Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, 1997.
Senie, Harriet F. "Mourning in Protest: Spontaneous Memorials and the Sacralization of Public
Space." Harvard Design Magazine (Fall, 1999): 23-27.
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Walter, Tony, ed. The Mourning for Diana. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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