With reference to the book Grief and Loss: Theories and Skills for the Helping professions, specific to the issue of "spontaneous memorials", I need a thorough response addressing all of these areas: What types of memorials did you find? Why do you think people choose to create these memorials? Have you ever participated in one? What led you to do that?
There was nothing spontaneous about the design and construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Its construction was the culmination of a meticulous, if controversial, process involving a competition among architects for the honor of designing the monument. What was spontaneous, however, was the reaction of many veterans of that war, and of families of those killed in combat, following the memorial’s completion. All of a sudden, relatives and former colleagues of those whose names are on the Wall began leaving mementos to the fallen, including military paraphernalia, flowers, and all matter of personal items. So rapid and voluminous was this development that it caught Park employees tasked with the memorial’s care off-guard and resulted in construction of a special warehouse for cataloguing and storing the memorabilia left at the base of the Wall.
The accumulation of personal artifacts in memory of those killed in Southeast Asia is a classic example of spontaneity with respect to memorials to the dead. While clearly exceeding most others in scope, it is nevertheless an apt instance of people responding to their grief and loss through the spontaneous creation of a memorial. Such responses to loss and grief and common around the world. I’ve viewed such spontaneous memorials in places as diverse as Duluth, Minnesota, and Bali, Indonesia, the latter reflecting the Hindu heritage of much of that island’s population. Such memorials invariably include flowers, either meticulously arranged or loosely scattered on the site where the tragedy in question occurred. Photographs of the deceased are frequently found on spontaneous memorials in many countries, and personal items unique to the deceased individual are routinely placed at the site. Graffiti may be written on sidewalks near the sight of a fatal traffic accident, or on the rocks where an individual perished while rock or mountain climbing, or where the deceased was known to spend a lot of leisure time.
Survivors, relatives, friends, and sympathetic strangers are prone to construct spontaneous memorials because it is a concrete measure they can take when no other measure seems adequate to their level of grief. Memories and prayers are what sustain many, but memorials are visible symbols of loss and grief that help many people cope with the emotional pain of their loss. Especially with respect to tragic events life traffic accidents or murders, memorials placed at the site of the incident help many to express their sense of loss while presenting to the world a sign of respect. In some cultures, and the aforementioned observations in Bali, Indonesia, are an example, the construction of spontaneous memorials is viewed as part of the process by which balance within the universe is reestablished following the tragic event. In most instances, however, these memorials arise as a way for the living to honor and remember the dead, especially in cases of sudden and violent deaths.
In addition to witnessing spontaneous memorials around the United States and in areas of Asia, I participated in one such memorial following the announced death of Jerry Garcia. Followers of the Grateful Dead (of which I was not, but my then-girlfriend was) assembled on the National Mall for an impromptu memorial to the late musician.