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Street Shrines As Precarious As Life There Are More Ways To Die Now, And People Create More Ways To Mourn

Tue., Jan. 31, 1995

Strip malls line mile after mile of suburban streets here, but Tarragona Plaza is different - if you know where to look.

Underneath a tangle of untended flowers and Taco Bell cups, a yellow candle, burned to a stub, marks the spot where two college students were fatally shot during a March carjacking.

It is the lone remnant of a shrine built to the memories of Go Matsuura and Takuma Ito, both 19.

Friends, family members and residents, stunned by the inexplicable violence, came every day for weeks, leaving flowers, plants, letters, photos, food and cigarettes in the parking lot.

At its peak, the shrine filled two spaces. Now there’s almost nothing left, but mourners still visit occasionally to burn a candle and quietly pay their respects.

Increasingly, people in grief are moving the cemetery to the street or the parking lot or the restaurant - or wherever senseless death occurs.

“There are more ways to die than there used to be,” said C. Allen Haney, professor of sociology at the University of Houston. “Some are gruesome and gory and nonsensical and what I call in my classes ‘dirty deaths.’ We humans feel the need to address those in special ways.”

Mourners have left candles, flowers and notes at the abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., where two employees were killed on New Year’s Eve. One victim’s fiance nailed a small white cross to a nearby tree.

Teddy bears and crosses sit near the shore of Lake John D. Long in Union, S.C. where Susan Smith allegedly drowned her two boys in October.

In Waco, Texas, wreaths and crude white crosses remain at the site of the compound where nearly 80 people, including Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh, died in a fire after a 51-day standoff with authorities in 1993.

More than a year after 12-year-old Polly Klaas’ body was found in Cloverdale, Calif., an informal monument - a photo of Polly and a simple flower garden bordered with stones - still marks the spot. It began when FBI agents touched by her murder placed poinsettias there.

The girl’s father, Marc Klaas, didn’t approve of what has come to be known as “Polly’s Place” at first. “It didn’t seem to me appropriate to honor the place where my daughter’s body was found,” he said.

“But people seem to have a need to go there, and they continue to do it. Some of the people who live up in the area are dedicated to turning it into a beautiful place. I’ve had a change of heart.”

Partly, his view shifted as the site became a focal point for children’s advocates, he said.

“I think when Polly was coined as ‘America’s Child,’ she truly did come to represent crimes against children,” Klaas said. “And that has something to do with the site’s enduring quality. … It is a very powerful place.”

Mary Frazier, a resident of nearby Cotati who helped distribute leaflets after Polly’s disappearance, said she couldn’t bring herself to visit the site for almost a year. In December, she went for the first time.

“It was very emotional for me,” she said. “I got angry again - it was almost like going through all the stages of grieving again. Finally, by the time I left, I felt more peaceful.”

The mourners building shrines often are, like Frazier, outsiders excluded from traditional rites such as funerals, sociologist Haney said.

“They can feel the loss, but they cannot go through formal rituals, so they go through a homemade mourning routine,” he said.

Is building a shrine to a dead person’s memory a healthy outlet?

“Absolutely,” said Ron Barrett, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “In death education, we believe it’s more healthy to externalize than to keep it pent up.

“However -, and this is a big ‘but’ - the tenacity with which people hold onto shrines can be an indication of unresolved grief and a very important warning sign that something is wrong,” he said.

Indeed, shrines seem to have a life cycle of their own, and it parallels mourners’ recoveries. One site in Ventura County, Calif., memorializing a slain Oxnard police officer was intentionally dismantled so the community could move on.

The Polly Klaas and Waco shrines have become semi-permanent, while many others, such as the one for the two slain students, slowly fall into disrepair and die themselves.

Experts say shrines grow from the same impulse that leads people to leave inexplicable personal mementos such as boots and bicycle fenders at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“It’s a reminder that we really need to love each other,” said John Schneider, author of two books on grief and a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University.

“You can be mad at someone one day and they’re dead the next, and you never had a chance to say goodbye. Shrines say it can happen right here.”

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