Enshrining shared grief

Spontaneous memorials are a testament to the victims of tragedy -- and therapy for bereaved communities.

May 30, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,Sun Staff

Every month, Edward Linenthal travels from his Wisconsin home to Oklahoma City. And every month, he meets people who have different reasons for making the same pilgrimage.

Relatives of those killed in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building visit the bombing site because there, they feel a connection with loved ones. Grieving widows leave love letters, and fathers bring teddy bears.

But it is the countless strangers -- those who never met the victims -- who most intrigue Linenthal, a University of Wisconsin professor who is writing a book about the memorial site. Some come with religious tokens or written prayers; teen-agers bring flowers; parents visit because they feel compassion for those who lost children.

What pulls so many different kinds of people together is a question Linenthal has grappled with repeatedly. With each fresh tragedy -- the shootings at Columbine High School, Susan Smith's drowning of her two young sons -- the process repeats itself, as if by public script. First come local residents, then travelers bearing roses and carnations -- even corporations have begun to erect sympathy banners. The death site, rather than the victims' home or grave, becomes a spontaneous, unofficial memorial.

Though graveyard crosses and religious shrines in homes are universal, timeless symbols of grief, such massive public memorials have sprung up only in recent decades. One cause is the widening reach of the media, experts say.

"Not many of us, if we were walking down the street in our hometowns, would walk into a funeral going on in a church," Linenthal says. "But because these were public deaths and belonged to everyone, ... they become kind of public property."

Millions learned from the news that one Columbine victim held tight to her belief in God, even as she died. Glossy magazines detailed Princess Diana's anguish over her husband's affair. Newspapers printed photos of the two Smith boys, their big eyes bright.

Such details bring us a sense of intimacy, says Phillips Stevens, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

People feel a kinship with victims who seem like them: "someone of the same age, someone who had a child of the same age, someone of a similar profession," Stevens says. "That's just a fact of being human."

With that feeling of connection comes the realization that the violence or accident could have easily struck closer to home. That may be one reason why visits to the Oklahoma bombing site are so numerous that highway signs have been erected to guide the way there.

"Some of these events seem so incredible a threat to our identity that the urge to resolve them memorially is overpowering," Linenthal suggests.

In other words, spontaneous memorials are therapy for bereaved communities -- which may be defined more by demographics than geography.

Aliza Kolker, a sociology professor at Virginia's George Mason University, found herself reacting to the Columbine shootings as a mother, rather than a professional. Had she been closer to the school, she would have felt compelled to visit, she says.

Because of the massacre, Kolker worries about people's reactions to her high school-aged son, who she says expresses his individuality through clothing.

"What happens if a child is different in one way or another?" she asks. "Is he perceived potentially as a murderer?"

In the Susan Smith case, Kolker's sentiments mirrored those of other parents who angrily questioned what could possibly drive a mother to kill her children.

Her differing reactions to the two tragedies support her theory that these outpourings of grief and sympathy from strangers aren't meant to comfort only the deceased's family.

"This is more about us than the person who died," she says. "The event is a Rorschach test of our lives, our identities."

Pub Date: 05/30/99

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