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Altars on wheels: Expressing grief in the 21st century

Contemporary grieving rituals transport our private pain to a public arena

Mexicans say we all die three times: one – when we stop breathing; two – when we are buried beneath the earth, never to be seen again; and three – when we are forgotten.

Different cultures deal with death in different ways. Every culture employs various devices to keep from forgetting loved ones and each practice has its own attendant emotions.

The Latino cultures have their Día de los Muertos customs, which are more like celebrations of life than commemorations of death. Death and the dead are represented through altars, food, drink, photos, art, music and literature. All the items used in Day of the Dead rites are promises never to forget our deceased relatives and friends. 

Non-Latino cultures have their own approaches to remembering and honoring the dead. U.S. society has been said to have a phobia of death, so that grieving people bear the burden of ignorance about what grief for the dead is, and how to express it. 

Public memorials in various forms are an important way by which Latinos relieve the pain of grief. Sharing personal hurt with others can bring comfort. Knowing that others can share in your loss and in memorializing the dead seems to help the healing process.  

These days, memorials can be easily created by means of custom stickers and decals honoring the dead. These are ordered one or several at a time from on-line sticker manufacturers’ websites. Sometimes, you can order them from local stores or from booths in a mall.

When these stickers are placed on cars, trucks, and even bicycles, these vehicles become mobile altars on wheels for deceased loved ones.

 In the age of the automobile, bumper stickers and car window decals express private grieving in public ways that reflect our times and social mores.

The sticker phrases often have the element, “In loving memory of _____,” or simply the name of the deceased, with a birth date and date of death. Decorations, such as angel wings or a white dove, might accompany the text, as well as a photo taken of the person during their life. 

Memorial stickers and decals are a way of making sense out of tragedy, of dealing with private grief in a public way, says Kathleen Garces-Foley, author of Contemporary American Funeral: Personalizing Tradition.

 She says that in a society that has become so traumatized by death – from 9/11 to foreign wars to mass school shootings – stickers can be a way of forcing recognition and acknowledgement of a shared heartache. 

“It’s [a] reaction against anonymity,” says Garces-Foley, assistant professor of religious studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. 

“There’s this urge to ritualize in the face of death. In some ways, what we are seeing is that the old way of ritualizing death through clearly religious means is no longer enough, and people are looking for new ways – public ways. 

“It’s connected to things like Facebook, where we feel this desire to make our lives more public, to let people know who we are. And if someone we love dies, we let people know that too.”

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This Article appears on the November 2012 issue of LPM under Features

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