Marking the site of death on the road with a shrine, an increasingly popular cultural practice in the United States, is a deeply personal, private affair, however, because shrines are placed in the public right-of-way, they attract attention and invite participation, comment, and criticism. These sites, the materials that mark them, how people come to build them, the messages that those who build them hope to convey, and the accumulative force these sites bring to bear in various contexts offer unique insights into our complex, fragmented, and often confounding relationships with death, living memory, and selective forgetting.
This project takes roadside shrines, material cultural artifacts, as points of departure for a multi-track journey. This journey locates shrines on the road and in cultural imagination, in historical records and cultural mythology, and in the researcher’s personal archive. The construction of the text makes apparent the researcher’s cultural poesis and invites readers to participate in like manner.
Chapter One situates roadside shrines within academic discourse, explains the construction of the written text, provides a brief review of literature pertinent to the study of roadside shrines, and describes the scale, scope and methods employed during the research process. Chapter Two describes roadside shrines from the perspective of the passer-by along two local routes and two cross-country road trips. Chapter Three examines the popularity of shrine-building in the vernacular and academic press, historicizes the practice of shrine-building, explores recent institutional attempts to regulate roadside shrines, and offers a provisional interpretation of shrine-building as resistant performances of protest and warning. Chapter Four explores roadside shrines from the perspective of the participant-observer engaged in various rituals while visiting specific roadside shrines and during additional cross-country road trips. Chapter Five examines shrine-building as social ritual in the popular and academic arts, historicizes shrine-building as a mourning ritual, offers a provisional interpretation of shrine-building as performances that resist normative constraints of “healthy” mourning while simultaneously re-inscribing a dominant formal aesthetic. Chapter Six restlessly concludes as the researcher returns to the field.