Over the centuries the content of memorialization has changed dramatically from culture to culture. Some cultures, such as those in ancient Greek and Asia, built huge temples to memorialize leaders of their society. Still other important cultures took that same approach to memorializing entire segments of society or entire villages. And others, for whom cremation is the normal disposal of a body, take a simpler approach to memorialization: simple ceremonies involving the scattering of cremation ashes is the main form of memorialization in these cultures. This latest tradition may be modified slightly in today’s age of technology to include the videotaping of the ceremony, but the main form of memorialization remains the same.
And it is this latter addition to the traditions of memorialziation that seems to prove the truth behind the assumption made by most modern sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists: memorialization is -- and has always been -- done more to benefit the living than the dead. What other purpose would videotaping a cremation ceremony serve than to comfort the living years or even decades after the event? Another modern tradition that seems to confirm this assumption is the practice known among scholars as “spontaneous memorialization.” Under this tradition, people visit the site of unexpected deaths very shortly (sometimes within minutes) of a passing and display momentos -- drawings, letters, flowers, or items that were special to the deceased. This phenomena has been popular in the United States and across the developed world for much of the 21st century. It is particularly common at the scene of deadly automobile wrecks and, in fact, an entire small industry has developed in recent years to serve this tradition. Type “road side memorials” into any Internet search engine, and you will find up to a dozen companies offering ready-made memorials designed to be personalized and shipped quickly and then displayed at the scene of a car accident. (In some states, this practice has become controversial because athiest groups object to religious symbols being displayed on public property, but that discussion , while interesting, is largely beyond the scope of this article.) This tradition became a subject of serious scholarly inquiry shortly after the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City. Researchers noted the types of momentos placed at the scene, the length of time momentos were left there, and even the apparent mood of those who left them. They then compared these data with that of “spontaneous memorialization” in other parts of the United States and the world.
The main conclusion that scholars have made regarding spontaneous memorialization is that, like all other types of memorialization, it is an important part of the grieving process for the living. Just as the grieving process is different for each person, the decisions about what to present and how to behave at a spontaneous memorial varied dramatically when scholars were keeping note. Some people left clothes, some left music, some left original poetry. Some cried. Some laughed. Some were somber. Some appeared angry. Researchers have yet to establish any consistent trends for spontaneous memorialization, and that leads them to conclude that, like all other forms of memorialization, the goal is to help the living cope with fear and other difficult emotions that death inspires.
Memorials are often said to pay tribute to the memory of the dead, and - on the surface - that may be their true purpose. But research seems to indicate today that a more powerful motivation for memorialization is to help the living to feel better about the frightening prospects that death brings about.
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