Photo Essay / Icons

Remember Your Loved One—Build a Birdhouse

Humans are symbolic animals who create meaning from things. An eccentric movement to craft birdhouses into personal memorials has arisen spontaneously in central Florida.

Not far from where I live in central Florida, dozens of remarkable birdhouses grace a short canal along the meandering St. Johns River. Some of the birdhouses are store-bought. Some of them are handcrafted. But every birdhouse is uniquely decorated. Written messages, painted images, and personal photographs adorn them. Every small house takes the form of a memorial.

Memorialization is how humans commemorate people, events, and ideals. Miniatures, like birdhouses, suit the task of memorialization because they focus viewers’ attention on the similarities and differences between the “real” and the “replica”—between our actual lived experiences and how these experiences can be condensed into a symbol.

And the house is a powerful symbol: a shelter from the storms of life, a dwelling for family, a connection to community. The place where we eat, play, converse, grow, work, slumber, and dream, our homes shape our memories of youth and our roles as siblings and parents. The house is a symbol of who we are at our core.

This photo essay explores how Americans use unique objects, in this case birdhouses, to celebrate and memorialize important people—especially the deceased—in our lives. Less than a decade ago, people began spontaneously decorating the canal along the St. Johns River—which borders two Florida state parks—with birdhouses to publicly display their lives, their sense of themselves, and, often, their losses. Like the familiar roadside memorials to victims of automobile accidents, birdhouses along the St. Johns River illustrate how objects and performances (making, hanging, and maintaining memorials) help people in their search to comprehend the enigmas of life and death.

Humans are uniquely symbolic animals: Unlike beetles or cats, we understand that an object can stand for an idea, that one thing can represent something else entirely. A red octagon means stop. A heart means love. Along the St. Johns River, miniature birdhouses mean self, family, community, and humanity. Birdhouses treat souls.

Jonathan Walz is an archaeologist who studies the later archaeology of Africa. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and is currently an assistant professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His research addresses historical archaeology in East Africa, human linkages across the ancient Indian Ocean, and materials of ritual and healing.


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