I was in Boston on Saturday morning to attend a meeting just a block away from one of two "spontaneous" memorials to the Marathon bombing victims. This first memorial had sprung up from the ground at Berkeley and Boylston streets.
Boylston was still cordoned off and deserted except for a half dozen lab technicians hard at work a half mile away, small white-coated shapes moving back and forth across an eerie urban landscape.
Historians have watched the rise of these stunning, organic, makeshift memorials over the past few decades. "As physical objects they are ephemera," writes Michael J. Lewis of Williams College, "but as a mass cultural phenomenon they are quite extraordinary, and they testify to a deep human need for memorials." These powerful if fleeting statements "look for widely understood symbols," Lewis adds, and "they yearn for resolution and closure."
The Marathon-bombing memorial at Boylston and Berkeley Street was sad and moving, filled with fresh cut flowers and stuffed animals, American flags and photographs. Many people stopped by while I was there--fittingly, many runners who paused from their Saturday morning workouts--and everyone to a person was respectful.
What's particularly healing about these sorts of makeshift memorials is that, while they will disappear soon enough, I will never cross Boylston Street again without seeing them in my mind's eye. I don't know if they can crowd out the other awful images of that Marathon day, but it's not a bad start--and suggests that, ironically, the most lasting memorials of all are sometimes those that just fade away.