“Beyond Memento Mori: Understanding American Religions Through Roadside Shrines”

Here is Allison Elizabeth Solso’s 2015 dissertation on the theme of “vernacular memorials”; the often-temporary shrines constructed by bereaved families and friends at the sites of often-violent deaths.

An excerpt:

My relationship to these spaces was always confused, even as I did my best to maintain respect and some modicum of decorum. The need to pay respect and tribute was deeply motivating because one point of clarity I did have was that this place was special: it wasn’t quite the earth anymore, and yet it didn’t seem like the heaven. Instead, it was a different, more ambiguous, more chaotic plane that I now understand as a thoroughly liminal space.

As I began to write, I noticed myself drawn again and again to issues of defining what, exactly, religion is and, relatedly, how to define something like ritual behavior or sacred space. Realizing that these terms were becoming more and more imprecise and slippery, I opted to allow for complexity, breaking the false relationship I had created in my mind about mourning on the one hand, and religion on the other. Indeed, as I wrote and remembered and organized my field work and interviews, it became clear that, for people who build shrines, mourning and ritual are one and the same.

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