Joralemon said the practice of erecting roadside memorials is a modern death ritual that has long fascinated anthropologists. "There's a huge amount of literature documenting their emergence and proliferation," Joralemon said. "All of that has seen a huge upswing in just the last 20 years or so." Joralemon said the tradition has roots in Latin America, and also with public awareness campaigns by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the 1980s.
Cann said those MADD campaigns may also have helped to popularize the practice of paying tribute by way of car decals, bumper stickers, or R.I.P. messages drawn on the windows of vehicles. "The thing I love about this is you can move in and out of those memorials," Cann said. "It's mobile, and that seems to fit with our society now. It definitely fits in with this whole do-it-yourself culture."
So-called "mourning t-shirts" are still another recent DIY method of honoring the dead. Cann said the t-shirts are a kind of update of the memorial cards long used in Catholic funeral services.
"Like those cards, the t-shirts will have a picture of the person who died, and their birth date and death date, and maybe a prayer," Cann said. "There are a couple of theories on those -- some think they originated in L.A. gang culture. But I've also seen them circling back to these Catholic enclaves, where they hand out these t-shirts instead of the memorial cards."
Cann said a much, much older method of honoring the dead has come back around in a new form in recent years -- the tattoo tribute. "This goes all the way back to the Bible," Cann said. "There's a warning in Leviticus about not cutting your flesh for mourning. So this been around for thousands of years."
What's new about tattoo tributes these days is that the tattoo artists themselves often act as grief counselors. "This is fascinating to me," Cann said. "These people who get these certain kinds of tattoo tributes done, they often have no place else to go, no one else to talk about their mourning. You're sitting there for hours with this person, you're sharing the story behind the tattoo. It's a deeply personal experience."
Cann said she hoped that her research and the new book, scheduled to come out in the spring, would help us think about honoring our dead in the modern age, as mourning goes mobile, wearable and virtual.
"In more traditional or religious societies, there's this embracing of the dead that happens with these rituals," Cann said. "Like, think about the practice of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. You have an altar in the home. There's incense and candles and flowers. It's bringing the dead into our everyday lives."
"So that's what I think this memorialization trend is doing. It's bringing the dead back into our lives. Because otherwise, we end up hurting ourselves and not knowing how to cope with bereavement."