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New memorials: t-shirts, websites, auto decals

By Kate MoserContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2006



Sometimes when Donita McElroy pulls up to a red light, it's almost like visiting her son's burial plot near Wellborn, Ala.

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Since Ms. McElroy's 17-year-old son Marcus was shot to death in his uncle's driveway four years ago, she says hundreds of people in her small Alabama town have put memorial decals on their car windows. "You go uptown or somewhere, and you see your son's memorial," McElroy says. "And you feel like he didn't die in vain, like someone remembers him."

Some of the decals say "R.I.P. Marcus Pugh." Others display Pugh's football number from Wellborn High School, No. 11, superimposed over a drawing of an angel.

Many Americans are turning to decals, websites, even T-shirts as a way to remember loved ones, sharing their private grief publicly in innovative ways. Observers say people are using these new media to reach out to strangers who might share their experience.

The use of T-shirts to commemorate deaths, especially untimely or violent ones, comes out of a West Coast gang tradition that started in the early 1990s, says Montana Miller, a professor in the popular culture department at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. The idea has been appropriated by youth culture, particularly in minority communities, she says.

"It's creative and personal, but it's also mass-produced, so ... a whole group of people can have this same decal or T-shirt," Professor Miller says. "That really builds a sense of solidarity, which is so important in times of grieving."

Jack Jensen, spokesman for the California Funeral Directors Association, says these new kinds of memorials are part of the same impulse people have always had - to express that a person mattered and to remember them. But technology is giving people more ways to do this, beyond a memorial in a graveyard.

"They don't have to be stonemasons," Mr. Jensen says. "They're going to act out their expression in a medium that they're quite adept at working with." Anthropology and popular-culture experts can't pinpoint a starting time or place for memorial decals.

Some criticize memorial T-shirts, decals, and websites for their impermanence. "There's this feeling that it's temporary because it's in cyberspace," Miller says. "But when you think of the fragility of concrete memorials, and how easily gravestones can be tipped over or washed away, in a sense the Web is even more permanent than our traditional memorials." Likewise, "you never throw out your old T-shirts."

In dealing with death, Americans today often feel they lack the sense of community their grandparents had, says Jack Santino, another popular culture professor at Bowling Green and editor of "Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death." "It's almost as if it's a substitute for a close-knit community," he says. "You don't really know all these people, but that's the best you can do."

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