I wonder what you think of when I use the word shrine? I immediately think of the myriad of little roadside shrines in Catholic countries, often buried in a wall, or tumbledown brick pillars with a Madonna on top. They are places where people stop and pray, perhaps kneel and think of God.
Shrines to the deceased, to people we love, admire, or praise are not a new idea. They have been present for millennia. They are important reminders of someone who is not physically present, somewhere to rest, reflect, to think and feel and to pray if you want to. Many people create shrines in their homes or gardens to someone who has died.
What do these shrines look like? What do they contain and do they help?
It might be a collection of photographs in beautiful frames on the mantelpiece. It could be photos blue-tacked to the wall. It might be a chest upstairs in a quiet room which holds important objects or items that link the one who has died to the living. It might have a beautiful cloth, a central photo of the person, candles perhaps, an item of clothing, a watch, a hair ribbon, a Baby blanket or little shoe, a bracelet, a school book, a gift given or received, cards or letters, a beloved toy, stones, pieces of wood found on a beach, a school report. Pretty much anything that holds meaning for the one who is creating the shrine.
If it is a garden shrine it may be centered around a tree or flower bed, perhaps with some statuary or a water feature. There might be a bench to rest on and think quietly. There may be stones, rocks or flowers which the deceased loved. The bench might have a plaque in memory of that person.
Of course, grave sites can become a shrine too. Lovingly kept up, full of flowers, sometimes toys, balloons or teddy bears, if a child has died. Keeping that shrine pristine can become a daily mantra of love still shown to the dead. If you ever get the chance to visit La Cementerio de Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina you will see an amazing example just how important shrines still are today.
A newer way of creating a shrine is to make a memory box. In fact, it isn’t so new because people have held onto momentos from the dead for comfort and connection since time in memorial. Children are encouraged to make a memory box after a parent, grand-parent or sibling has died but actually, anyone can make one. It is simple, choose a lovely box and fill it with small items which are meaningful from the deceased or reflecting your relationship. One popular item for children is their parent’s spectacles. They might put in birthday cards their Mother gave them, a tie their Father wore a lot, drawings, pieces of jewellery which remind them of their parent. It can be any item that means something to them. It is a shrine which the child can take out when they want to and put away when they don’t. It can be a source of great comfort and importantly continued connections and closeness.
A more intimate form of shrine is a tattoo. Many people now choose to immortalise their loved one by having a tattoo. Some are quite elaborate, they may contain words telling themselves and the world what they thought and felt about that person. They may be symbolic or based in reality but they are a form of shrine which they carry with them always and as such they offer comfort and connection, literally and metaphorically.
Another modern form of shrine to the dead pop up on our roadsides. Most of us will have seen a road-side shrine where someone has sadly been killed (usually in a traffic accident). There is one where I live, which pops up every summer beside the road where the young lady sadly died. Flowers will be attached to the railings nearby with a note about who she is. I sometimes imagine her parents, their need to remind people that she existed, that they loved her and that they create the shrine as a ritual to give her life meaning. Though I haven’t seen one yet, I have heard of the ‘Ghost Motorbikes’, where friends or family or perhaps, fellow bikers paint the motor bike of someone who has died in a road traffic accident white. They then hang it where passing motorists can see it, and no doubt, they drive past it and remember their friend or relative. This is a very public memoralisation.
How do shrines help?
In times past, the emphasis in bereavement was on ‘getting over’ the death, ‘moving on’, ‘forget them and lead your life’. Nowadays, with all the research on bereavement the thinking has changed. You might have heard of ‘continuing bonds’? What that means in simple terms is that we don’t ‘get over’ the death of a beloved, we slowly get used to it and learn to live with it. I explain it to my clients this way, “the job that faces you, (the bereaved) is to metaphorically take the person who was living life outside of yourself, and bring that person inside of you, perhaps holding them in your heart and have, them ‘live’ there peacefully, in a way that is not raw or painful and eventually, have that become the new normal so that their passing can be accepted in the longer term”. For the majority of people that is the natural progression of grief. Shrines are one way of easing that progression. It is about staying close to the one who has died.
In time, it is likely that people are ready to dismantle the shrine because they no longer need it. Although that might feel as if you are either letting them go or being disloyal, what I think it really means is that the transition of accepting that person (who is greatly missed and still loved), into your heart to live peacefully there has happened by osmosis and you no longer need the shrine as an outward reflection of love and connection.
Shrines are deeply personal portrayals of love and longing. If you have created a shrine do tell us about it below. If you continue to struggle with grief and would like to discuss counselling, you can contact me here.