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  • Grassroots Memorials. The Politics of Memorializing Traumatic Death ed. by Peter Jan Margry, Cristina Sánchez-Carretero
  • Joanna Bourke
Grassroots Memorials. The Politics of Memorializing Traumatic Death. Edited by Peter Jan Margry and Cristina Sánchez-Carretero (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011. x plus 374 pp.).

We are living in a time of “memorial mania,” in popular culture as much as in academic publishing. This is not to say that all traumatic deaths are seen as warranting attention, let alone public displays of grief. On April 20, 1999, for instance, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a forty-five minute shooting spree at Columbine High School, killing twelve students, one teacher, and then themselves. The day after the massacre, makeshift shrines began being set up near the campus, many of which contained strong Christian messages. This would not have been remarkable if not for the intervention of Greg Zanis, who erected fifteen six-foot tall crosses on a hill adjacent to the school: that is, crosses for all those killed, including the shooters. The furore was immediate. Some people attached messages of reconciliation: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” read one. Others attacked the two crosses, posting signs reading “Murderers burn in hell.” Similar scenes were replayed when local people sought to include the perpetrators of shootings at Virginia Tech University (April 16, 2007) and Northern Illinois University (February 14, 2008) in their commemorative sites, illustrating the profoundly disruptive nature of shrines that strayed beyond the norm. The messages left at these shrines also exposed the conflict between Christian forgiveness and secular retribution. Furthermore, unlike the shrines following 9/11, these school shrines were resolutely non-political: gun control, mental illness, and youth alienation were hardly ever mentioned.

Improvised memorials, such as those at Columbine, are the focus of Grassroots Memorials, a collection edited by ethnologists Peter Jan Margry and Cristina Sánchez-Carretero. The volume bears all the hallmarks of an academic conference: the individual chapters often seem to “stand alone” and it is difficult to see a common thread between some of them. There are also numerous annoying words that a good editor should have eliminated, including heritagize, meditization, and museumized.

Nevertheless, this is a useful book that seeks to start the process of analysing a neglected field within “memory studies.” The editors do an excellent job in delineating their topic: they stress that they will be focusing only on temporary or improvised memorials that emerge when local communities suffer some kind of traumatic event. They state that such memorials have a political purpose: they have “the aim of changing or ameliorating a particular situation” (although Sylvia Grider’s thoughtful chapter on memorials for school shootings suggests that these acts may be “political” in a personal sense, as opposed to seeking [End Page 222] changes in public policy). Crucially, these sites are not established by the state, church, or other official institution, although they are often tolerated until deemed a health hazard or unsightly for tourism. Local businesses often expressed the strongest hostility to them, since they could have a devastating impact on sales.

Most of the chapters emphasise the performative function of memorial-making. Philosopher John Austin’s work on speech acts is employed in productive ways: the act of contributing to the memorials is, in itself, an attempt to effect change in local communities. A number of the authors also address the tension between local individuals, who may need to “live with” the dead (as in the aftermath of the 1999 floods in Venezuela), and state authorities, who seek to nudge people towards “closure” and an attention to the future. This is most clearly argued in the chapter on the Bali bombings of October 2002, written by Huube de Jorge. While the Australian relatives of those killed by the bombs tended to regard the bombsite as something close to holy ground (even akin to Gallipoli), which required both temporary and permanent memorials, the Hindu Balinese sought to restore balance through purification rituals. The sensitive negotiations and, in the end, the courtesy shown by the Balinese towards Western ways of remembrance, makes for an insightful chapter.

Indeed, all the chapters...


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pp. 222-223
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