New memorials: t-shirts, websites, auto decals

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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."

Memorial decalmakers say the stickers are usually designed to reflect the character of the person. One decalmaker says a customer wanted the image of a coal miner on his knees, while another woman wanted the type of bulldozer her father drove.

Several months after David McGhee of Mechanicsville, Va., lost his eldest daughter, he found an outlet for his grief by fashioning such a decal.

"It's not anything that I even intended to do when she died," Mr. McGhee says. But one day when he and his wife were out, they sat at a stoplight when he glimpsed a memorial decal on the car next to theirs.

"Something just sparked," McGhee says. For him, it was the ideal way to tell his story. "I wanted something that's mobile, for people to see, so that people who've lost a child or loved one sees that," he says.

Now McGhee designs decals for other bereaved parents. He makes them with Bruce Marston, a minister in Mechanicsville. They think of their creations as a ministry. They have made more than 150 decals so far, with orders coming in from around the country.

"There's something to be said for that bond between people who share grief," Mr. Marston says. "The decal makes it very obvious - 'I have been through what you've been through. This is my story.' "

This kind of identification with others has been central to healing for many people who make new kinds of memorials.

Dawn Cepero, who lives near Tampa, Fla., has turned to a different medium to memorialize: the Internet. She says online memorials have helped soothe the isolation she felt after losing a child.

"It's helped me get through the grief process," says Ms. Cepero, who made memorials on Legacy.com and Memory-of.com for her 4-year-old daughter Caylee, who died in March 2005.

"It's so taboo to talk about a dead child," she says. "That's one thing the Internet has [changed]. In the past, if you were to walk into a grocery store, you wouldn't know you weren't the only person who had lost a child."

Social networking websites, such as MySpace.com, have become a place where young people memorialize their friends. Parents have also found comfort there.

After her 15-year-old son Kyle died in an accident last October, Theresa Miran of Apple Valley, Calif., opened her own MySpace profile. There, she posted two pictures of Kyle and her, together. She also has messages from Kyle's friends, including some wishing her a Happy Mother's Day.

Ms. Miran says it has been therapeutic for her and her son's friends to reach out to each other on MySpace.

"I guess it's one way that I can still feel connected [with Kyle]," she says. Miran also keeps her son's MySpace profile up, and his friends leave messages.

Back in Alabama, McElroy says she still misses her son. The day before the fourth anniversary of his death last fall, she said she wished other people would think about getting decals to help them deal with their grief. "It's helped me," she said. "It's four years tomorrow, and I'm still seeing stickers."

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