Spontaneous memorials are a first reaction to the unanticipated and violent loss of life.
They can be the limited, personal expression of the family and friends who place flowers, candles, stuffed animals, and notes on a tree by the roadside where a fatal accident occurred, or as in the case of September 11th, spontaneous memorials can blossom in thousands of places at the same time and be an international phenomenon that seems to unite most of the world around a single event.
What common elements are in both these local and world-wide acts of memorialization?
Perhaps one immediate clue might be in the name. Spontaneous memorials are not commissioned, planned by a committee, or orchestrated by a government. They just seem to happen spontaneously in response to powerful human needs.
After the shootings at Columbine High School, Clement Park across the street became the site of an extensive spontaneous memorial. Countless people who were not directly involved and had not lost family or friends came and left something – “homemade artwork, handwritten poems wrapped in plastic, teddy bears, team shirts, votive candles and wind chimes.”
Approximately 200,000 items were collected at the park and sent into storage from this place that had in some impromptu way become sacred ground and a destination for strangers who felt that they had to come on a pilgrimage and leave something behind.
Not as significant a factor in the deaths of President John Kennedy (1962) or Martin Luther King (1968), spontaneous memorials were a major part of the public response to the death of Princess Diana (1997). They are a comparatively new phenomenon for grappling with violent death.
What are spontaneous memorials? Who creates them? What symbols do they use? What psychological or religious needs do they seem to answer? How do they fit into the history of rituals and practice relating to grief and mourning?
Our resource materials discuss how a spontaneous memorial may create a “community of bereavment” or transform public areas into “sacred spaces,” may be a response to changed attitudes toward death and cemeteries, or may even be connected to the role of television in our society.
In addition to the collection of resource readings, links, and postings for this page, we will go more deeply into specific examples of spontaneous memorials derived from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, and the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.