Shared Shrines

I lived in Albany NY for the last nine months and just recently moved back to Boston.  In Albany, I designed the bathroom with religious themes, mostly Christian. A 12 inch steel cross, an 8×10 framed doey-eyed Jesus with a bleeding heart, Buddha, the tall saint candles sold next to the Goya brand goods in the “International” section of the supermarket, a photo of the pope and other interesting religious items I cannot recall at this time.

It was a good bathroom. In my recent move, I decided to give most of my stuff back to the thrift store including my religious goods, when my guy suggested that we make a shrine. The apartment was directly across from the Empire State Plaza, the sprawling 6 billion dollar, 10,000 people displacing, modern architecture boasting (including an egg shaped building) Rockefeller monument. We walked over at 6am on the day of our blessed departure with the cross, the candles the picture of Jesus and the produce left in our fridge: 2 stalks of rhubarb, a white onion, a red onion, and a bulb of garlic.

We set it up near a bush,  smiled at our Albany shrine and left. We thought it was funny. I mean, it is funny. That was two weeks ago and last night I had to go back to Albany to tie up some loose ends and we went to check on our shrine. We doubted it was still there.

But it was. With a gigantic slug on the rhubarb and two laminated photographs of people that had been murdered and some new candles. I am a bad person. I laughed at first that it was still there and that someone had thought it was real. At least two people thought it was real and were sharing in our pain or devotion or memory or whatever shrines represent. I am a bad person.

Then I wondered why we’ve never gotten into shrines like these. I served my mission in Japan and saw them everywhere. Pictures, flowers, food, favorite things all for their dead. To remember their dead. To please them. I’ve also seen impromptu ones all over New York, Massachusetts, Oklahoma set up to remember and maybe help them get to heaven.

If my brother Sam is to be believed (and I pretty much believe everything, including when he told me that he was the Watcher in the Woods) our dead are very important to us. Why don’t we have things like this? Is it because we remember our dead in our doctrine and ordinances so there is no use for these shrines? Do we think they’re too weird? Are they other gods before our God? Based on false beliefs somehow?

I still think our shrine is pretty funny. And I’m glad it was there for those people to leave those new cards and candles, who desperately don’t want people to forget their loved ones. Plus it’s hard for me to think I’m a bad person for too long.


  1. Struwelpeter says:

    We have them; they just take different forms: pioneer trek, “Faith in Every Footstep,” Nauvoo, Kirtland, etc., etc.

  2. a) Close to idolotry.
    b) I think Moromons handle death way different than people of other faiths. We have a very positive outlook on the afterlife that most people don’t share, so we grieve differently.

  3. Shrine issue and LDS.

    Not part of our tradition

    Because of…..

    1. LDS Protestant roots. All the early church founders were protestants as were most of the early converts.

    2. Paganism feel

    3. Northern and Western European leadership from the beginning. See #1. Shrines are much more common in Souther and Eastern Europe and Asia.

  4. StillConfused says:

    Oh my heavens. Dude cracks me up!!

  5. StillConfused says:

    And what do you do with rhubarb… besides make a shrine?????

  6. Still Confused, rhubarb is divine. I like rhubarb cake, rhubarb pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, jam. Just don’t eat the leaves. My little bro ate them once and he had to have his stomach pumped.

    #1 I think shrines are too individual to be just like the Trek etc. Though those do help us remember our dead.

    #2 I think other religions see good things happening to their dead after they die. We’re not the only ones.

    And as far as the idoltry/pagan aspect, I get that but at the same time I think it’s easy to invest in the memory of your dead ones and still amply worship God. Missionaries used to complain about the Japanese saying that they didn’t want our religion because they worshipped their dead, but that’s not really the reason. I wished members could have joined and kept some of their shrines to their families but they were on crackdown and if members were gonna visit your house, you better not have one out.

  7. Best. bathroom. ever.

    We had a shrine to Love Boat Julie when I was an undergraduate, but that hardly counts.

  8. I’ve never understood the impromptu shrines you see on the side of the road where someone died in a car accident. I mean, that’s not even where the body is. That’s where the bad thing happened, but is that what you want to remember? I’ve wondered if they were trying to share their grief. If you make it public, somehow the person is more remembered than if you go by yourself to a cemetery to quietly put flowers on the grave. Sort of the billboard approach to death.

  9. Because in the LDS church we have other forms of idol worship. All you gots to do is go to Deseret Book and see what I mean.

  10. I mean really if you can’t feel holy in the bathroom, where can you? I had the Talmud in there for some light reading but decided that was sacreligious. A girl’s gotta have her boundaries.

    jab, I think the public shrines are trying to get other people not to forget. Or at least to take notice. The cards at the shrine we made seemed to be made for passing out, maybe for any shrine.

  11. And the doey-eyed Jesus was the best. He might have well have been Bambi, with the sweet, sad big eyes and the bleeding heart. Now you have to go to Albany to see it.

  12. Indeed, rhubarb can be divine. Amri, now that you’re back in Boston you should try the rhubarb bread available at Ward’s Berry Farm (I-95, Exit 8). Call ahead to see when it’s available–eaten warm, this bread is life-altering. (While you’re at it, please drop some off at our place a few exits back.)

  13. I think the shrines on roadsides where someone was killed are to warn others to be careful (or better drivers). Whenever I see one I think “Probably killed by a drunk driver.”

    For the most part, I think shrines for dead people are creepy. Unless it’s to serve some political cause, like to point out a tragic death/murder/drunk driver/etc.

  14. Wawho22 says:

    We do “Dios de los Muertos” (Days of the Dead) in conjunction with Halloween week every year. We talk about our dead ancestors, tell their/our favorite stories, eat their favorite foods, play their favorite games, etc. We also do a day in the Temple – baptisms, et al. It’s a great way to put a “faithful” spin on an otherwise pagan week. It has become our favorite “holiday” by far!

  15. Amri – sheesh! You lived in Albany? I guess living by the ESP, you probably went to the branch? We’ve lived here in Albany for the last three years – if you need someone to check on it for you, let me know….

  16. “I’ve never understood the impromptu shrines you see on the side of the road where someone died in a car accident.”

    I always assumed it was to convincingly persuade others to drive carefully on that stretch of road. Much more effective than a “Slippery When Wet” or “Drive Safely” or “Buckle Up: It’s the Law” sign.

  17. Glen Dutcher says:

    Here in North Florida, the roadside shrines remain for years after the actual incident. They usually are comprised of a white cross listing the person or persons’ names, date of death, and are surrounded by plastic floweres, which are replaced often (because the intensity of the sun bleaches the color out very quickly). I don’t see them as anything but a way to remember the people killed, since the exact cause of death is known by very few. There is one very near my home memorializing a man who was killed when he rode his motorcycle into a horse that had gotten loose and ran into the road. The owner of the horse spent six months in jail.

  18. Go to the Museum of Church History and Art, and you’ll see elements of such a shrine, hair wreaths, photos of death masks (I think the family church got the actual Cannon masks), old clothes, watches, and other relics. The Fore of New Guinea (the people studied by the exceedingly creepy Nobel laureate Carleton Gajdusek to discover the origins of the disease Kuru) practice a form of secondary treatment (removal of the bones once soft tissues are entirely dissolved) which often involves keeping the skull of a loved one in the house, say in the kitchen. That’s a bit over the top for Americans, although Ralph Waldo Emerson visited his wife’s skeleton in the mausoleum a year after she died.

    I keep an amethyst bolo tie of my favorite grandfather and a photograph and a copy of Respighi’s Pini di Roma in honor of my father.

  19. keeping the skull of a loved one in the house

    They famously did that in Jericho, about 10,000 years ago. Seems they chucked all the jawbones though.

  20. Most of my friend’s family was killed at a certain place on a road that I pass often. I can’t think of that place the same anymore. It’s not just another place on the road. Although there is no shrine there, I guess I understand the shrine thing better now. You feel a certain way about a place, and you want other people to know it’s not just another spot in the road. Something happened there. I don’t want people to just drive by and not know.

  21. While in Israel for the first time, I walked into an Old City store that sold Christian images and trinkets. Among their offerings were some holographic images of Jesus that would open and close eyes as you looked at them from different directions. Something about these image got me laughing – but the store owner was not amused.

    If I had one of those I’d have to send it to you, to add to your shrine.

  22. adcama–it was the branch in albany. A wacky but mostly lovely one.

    danithew–there was a shop in albany that sold all kinds of religious goods. One was a clock with a hologram of the cross and as you moved around the clock you could see Jesus being hoisted up on the cross. Amazing right? But it was 50 bucks. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to see that heavy lifting multiple times a day.

    MCQ–the people that I’ve met that have made shrines of course never forget the person, but like you just don’t want other people to forget. They don’t want the person taken by violence to just slip away in people’s memories.

    I like the shrines. But as I said, I’m a bad person and sometimes I like them because I think they’re funny.

    Also I still think death mementos of a community are very different from death mementos kept by individuals for their specific families.

  23. Peter LLC says:

    the impromptu shrines you see on the side of the road

    In France the authorities place standing human-like outlines on the side of the road, which make the memorials you find contemptible appear as paragons of discretion.

  24. Amri, you keep saying you’re a bad person but, just so you know, we’re not buying it.

    Driving through Montana once I noticed white crosses by the side of the road at regular intervals. I assumed they were from traffic fatalities that occured at those spots. Some were decorated with flowers. At one particular curve, there were five crosses. Made the road trip a bit somber.

  25. I also served my mission in Japan, and it always bothers me when people complain about “ancestor worship” and the shrines. We all honor our kindred dead in one way or another – or we should, anyway.

  26. I’m with MCQ. My good friend’s father was killed at a country intersection near our town that probably ought to have a stoplight, but still doesn’t. It’s a three way intersection, with a driveway on the fourth side. On the North side, the view of the East road is obstructed. The accident was traffic confusion, and three people trying to go at once.
    We (myself and my friends) have a wooden cross by the side of the road so that people pulling out from the North road remember to be careful, because we don’t want anyone to have to go through what she did.
    I agree with Tatiana (#16) In my experience, I think of my friend’s dad mostly at other times. But when I see that cross, it reminds me to drive more carefully.

  27. MikeInWeHo says:

    Last month on vacation I happened upon a small Greek Orthodox church with a parade of people streaming in, mid-day. Naturally I joined the queue. Much to my surprise, I was ushered into a little chamber off the main chapel that was filled with brightly polished silver lamps, various icons, and a dead body. There was a solid black coffin with a glass lid. Inside was a completely desiccated, blackened corpse. It looked ancient, mummy-like. The visitors mostly kissed the lid and quickly moved along. Some lit a candle on the side. Fearful that he was a vampire and with sunset approaching, I scurried away.

    A little research later seemed to indicate that this was probably a local saint. Now THAT’s a shrine.

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