Easy to Overlook, Important to Understand: Mt. Mary Professor Studies Roadside Death Shrines

Aug 25, 2015

Last week, our Precious Lives segment on gun violence in Milwaukee introduced us to a community organizer who is working to change the face of the roadside memorials that often spring up in communities in the wake of a murder. Her idea is to take these constant reminders of grief and turn them into positive spaces, like gardens.

Credit Shawnee Daniels-Sykes

Roadside memorials have become commonplace, not just in Milwaukee, but in many places around the world. Until recently, their significance hasn’t been the subject of a lot of academic study. That’s changing, though, in part through the efforts of Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, Ph.D. She is an associate professor of theology and ethics at Mt. Mary University as well as a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Daniels-Sykes wrote an academic paper, titled Erecting Death Shrines/Memorialson the topic.

As an ethicist, Daniels-Sykes says she is interested in the two ends of spectrum - life and death. "I knew of these death shrines in the city, because they have been in existence for a long time. It is just that I had never paid attention to them," she says. "So, one day as I was driving to work, I drove past one... and I began to pay attention."

After she drove past a third shrine, she took it as a sign to stop and check it out. She began taking photos of the shrines, learning the backstories and paying attention to the items that made up or adorned the shrines - teddy bears, votive candles, balloons.

"Many of the artifacts in those shrines that are symbolic of a birthday party or a celebration of life, and I found it curious that these same symbols were a part of the memorial – the celebration of a death," she says. "And I began to wonder about that whole notion of celebrating death as a sense of hope."

Daniels-Sykes shares her research with her students.  She realized that depending on where those students are from, some live with the shrines in their neighborhoods and others have never seen one. "I tell my students if you are serious about wanting to learn and to be present and explore outside of your comfort zone, come with me. I'll walk with you through the inner city. I live there, I know it," she says.

"Sometimes, it is basically taking people on a field trip, not in a condescending way, but in a very respectful, loving, educative way," she says. "And then have an opportunity to process with them, do some theological reflection on what you experienced."

Daniels-Sykes says there should be education about these shrines and steps taken to fix the root problem. "Where do we go from here? Concretely, empathetically, compassionately, transformatively, where do you we go from here?," she asks. "Because we can't keep having these shrines pop up."