Memorialization, Spontaneous

Spontaneous memorialization is a rapid public response to publicized, unexpected, and violent deaths, typically involving the accumulation of individual mementos to create a shrine at the death site. Most spontaneous memorials start within hours of death notification; someone leaves a candle or bouquet of flowers, which is followed quickly by contributions from others. Well-documented spontaneous memorials have appeared near mass death sites like the park over-looking Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado (the site of fifteen fatal shootings in 1999), the fence surrounding the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (where a bomb blast killed 168 people in 1995), and the homes of celebrities (e.g., mountains of bouquets were left at the palace of Great Britain's Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, when she died in an auto accident in 1997). Spontaneous memorials also occur in response to less celebrated deaths: the local store owner who died in a robbery, the pedestrian hit by a drunk driver, the child too near the window when a gang member started shooting.

The sociologist C. Allen Haney and colleagues have noted several ways in which spontaneous memorialization is less restrictive than traditional memorial formats, including the following:

  • • There are no rules of inclusion/exclusion. Anyone (including those who had never met the deceased) can participate, but no one is expected to do so.
  • • Timing is flexible. Typically one can join the memorial process at any time of day and for however long the memorial is in place. In Oklahoma City, for example, objects were left on the fence for years after the bombing.
  • • There is no expected ritual behavior. Mourners have been known to weep, pray, curse, gawk, and even videotape at the scene; some express emotions that are taboo at more traditional memorials, especially anger and guilt. Correspondingly, objects left behind do not follow a single theme; traditional death offerings, religious symbols, and idiosyncratic secular objects are common.
  • • The focus of memorialization varies. While those who knew the deceased mourn the loss of the individual, others grieve over the social pathologies that might have contributed to the death.

Spontaneous memorials also differ from traditional forms of memorialization by appearing where the death occurred (or at a location associated with the deceased) rather than in a site reserved for the dead. Spontaneous memorials thus tend to be impermanent but are an everyday reminder that death can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Haney and his colleagues postulate that the prevailing death practices in the United States (e.g., the removal of death, dying, and mourning from everyday life), coupled with the spread of the belief that the timing of death can be controlled, contribute to spontaneous memorialization. They suggest that unexpected, violent deaths, especially where the deceased is engaged in mundane, everyday (and presumably safe) behavior, openly violate the assumptions that death can be controlled and that death happens elsewhere. As a consequence, such deaths not only compel the immediate community to mourn but also broaden the community to include those whose lives were shaken by the death because of a perceived connection with the deceased. Members of this broader community, connected by collective mourning, go one by one to the death site to acknowledge their grief and to create a single memorial composed of their diverse, individual offerings. In this practice of honoring their dead, mourners define and reinforce their community connections.

See also: Bereavement, Vicarious ; Celebrity Deaths ; Funeral Industry ; Lincoln in the National Memory ; Royalty, British ; Sympathy Cards


Carlson, Paul. "Images of Lives Cut Short: As a Chill Wind Blows across Columbine's Campus, Thousands Remember Young People Killed in Murderous Rampage." The News Tribune, 1 May 1999.

Fox, Catherine. "Expressing Our Sorrow in Aftermath of Tragedy, Mourning Takes Shape in Spontaneous Memorials after the Assault." The Atlanta Constitution, 19 September 2001.

Haney, C. Allen, Christina Leimer, and Juliann Lowery. "Spontaneous Memorialization: Violent Death and Emerging Mourning Ritual." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 35 (1997):159–171.

Jorgensen-Earp, Cheryl R. and Lanzilotti, Lori, A. "Public Memory and Private Grief: The Construction of Shrines at the Sites of Public Tragedy." The Quarterly Journal of Speech 84, no. 2 (1998):150–170.

Mack, Sharon. "Roadside Remembrances: Shrines at Crash Sites Help Bereaved Connect to Where Loved Ones Were Lost." Bangor Daily News, 25 April 1998.

Pekkanen, Sarah. "Enshrining Shared Grief: Spontaneous Memorials Are a Testament to the Victims of Tragedy—and Therapy for Bereaved Communities." The Sun, 30 May 1999.


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