Roadside memorials.

They are constant reminders of tragic incidents in a bereaved community. Immediately following a death, people flock together to show their pain publicly, often placing sentimental objects like flowers, balloons or teddy bears at the site of the incident or somewhere nearby.

Eventually, time passes and life goes on; media coverage of a tragedy winds down, the police tape is removed and stuffed animals left at a site are destroyed by the elements.

But for many, the grief never ceases. The devastating heartbreak of losing a loved one doesn't seem to have an expiration date nor a narrative.

And so, many shrines remain. Even though they are often overlooked by members of the public, they serve as reminders that not only did someone die, they also lived, said Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, a theology professor at Mount Mary University in Wauwatosa.

Daniels-Sykes has studied shrines since 2013 when, one day, she noticed a shrine while she was driving to work. The next day, she noticed another — a "fresh" one, she recalled. When she saw a third shrine on day three, she decided to do something.

"I realized I need to stop and pay attention to these shrines," she said. "I took my camera out and started taking pictures of the shrines."

Daniels-Sykes began studying the memorials and the stories behind them, she said. She poured over newspaper articles, searched the Internet and gathered background information.

"I put on my academic hat," she said. "I wanted to learn more about the symbolism behind some of (them)."

A number of shrines have been located throughout Wauwatosa, including one near the railroad tracks at 68th and State Streets, along Underwood Parkway and one in the 7000 block of West North Avenue. The shrines were created following the deaths of an 11-year old who was killed by a train while crossing railroad tracks, a 54-year-old West Milwaukee man who was flung from a freeway overpass when he was hit by another vehicle while riding his motorcycle, and an 11-year-old Longfellow Middle School student who was hit by an SUV while skateboarding.

Not far from Wauwatosa, in the 100 block of North 68th Street in Milwaukee, is a new shrine — comprised of roses and a small, white lamb stuffed animal nailed to a tree — outside the home where a 28-year-old woman and her 4-year-old daughter lived. Both were killed by the woman's boyfriend before he set their bodies on fire.

In her academic paper on the topic, titled "Erecting Death Shrines/Memorials," Daniels-Sykes said things like pictures, Mylar or helium balloons, votive candles, signed sympathy cards, poster boards with handwritten messages, flowers, clothing, liquor bottles and plush stuffed animals — especially teddy bears — are often found at the shrines.

"People want to memorialize life," shes said. "We don't do enough celebration in our lives."

Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber said he understands the desire to erect such memorials and that they are often part of the grieving process. He said the department — especially those members who responded to some of the tragic scenes — knows the distressing stories behind the shrines.

But, Weber said, personally, he doesn't believe in the memorials.

"They're a reminder of a tragedy and not how someone lived," he said. He added the victim's family already lives with the loss daily and seeing the memorials could only add to the pain.

While Daniels-Sykes has primarily studied shrines in Milwaukee erected as a result of gun violence, there are similarities about memorials no matter the tragic events that ended the life. Daniels-Sykes is a theologian at Mount Mary University and many of her findings reflect her religious studies.

For example, balloons could signify motion upward to the sky and teddy bears or plush stuffed animals could represent comfort, the latter of which is worrisome to the professor.

"Because so many of those shrines are in the community, on playgrounds, I am concerned about the impact on the children," she said. Objects like teddy bears are often signs of comfort for children, so she worries about the psychological impact of seeing a teddy bear at a site of violence could have on a child.

In Wauwatosa, there are no ordinances that require city workers to take the shrines down after a certain amount of time, said Public Works Director Bill Porter. The only time a memorial would be removed is if it were obstructing traffic, which hasn't yet happened during his tenure, he said.

It's a different story in Milwaukee, said Daniels-Sykes; shrines are often destroyed by rival gangs or taken down by sanitation workers.

The professor has studied roadside memorials across the country, most recently in New Orleans. Despite her own widespread research, the professor is surprised that more people been struck with the same curiosity about the shrines.

"What's fascinating to me is that not more has been written about shrines," she said. "That's the part that's really shocking to me."

Read or Share this story: