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Shrine and Its Removal Are Balms to Columbine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The deep layers of flowers have begun to rot. The handwritten cards and banners have been shredded by the wind. The doughty teddy bears have been de-fleeced by rain and snow. Two weeks of mournful shuffling have scuffed away the once-healthy spring grass.

The impromptu memorial that sprung up around Columbine High School is on its last legs. The sprawling, memento-filled heaps of candles and letter sweaters and laminated Bible passages are about to be fork-lifted into a trash truck, bringing to an end the remarkable outpouring of public grief over the slayings of 12 students and a teacher and the suicide of two young gunmen just across the way.

The dismantling of the Columbine shrine--which the northeast slice of Clement Park surely is--may not put to rest any of the anger and grief in this community, but it will remove its public face. A necessary step, experts say, in the healing process.

Then there is the odd tale of the crosses, and the well-meaning Illinois man who on Wednesday made his third trip to Clement Park in less than a week.

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Clement Park, a 325-acre regional park, sits next to Columbine and was a popular spot for surreptitious student smoking and after-school lounging. Now, because of its proximity to a crippled school that remains a crime scene, it has become hallowed ground.

The floral tributes began to arrive the day after the April 20 massacre, sent from around the world to this general address. Florists’ vans simply double-parked on busy Bowles Avenue, and delivery people dashed out to place bouquets under trees.

The size and number of the memorials are staggering. Two separate ones have sprung up around cars of slain students that remain in the school parking lot. The cars--belonging to Rachel Scott and John Tomlin--are now encrusted with layers of flowers and cards covered with plastic sheeting, which, in turn, has been blanketed with another layer of mementos, topped with more plastic. Above it all, protecting the automotive shrine from the elements, is a commercial-grade canopy.

Elsewhere, trees are dressed for mourning. They are adorned with wind chimes, rosaries dangling from lower limbs and blue and silver crepe paper--the school colors--wrapped around trunks.

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The Foothills Park and Recreation District this week gingerly and discreetly began removing some of the more sodden mementos. The personal items will be collected by the Denver Historical Society and inventoried and stored for possible future presentation.

The rotted flowers will be used for compost to fertilize the park’s gardens, and the fresher flowers will be turned over to the Littleton Fire Department, which has expressed a desire to make potpourri for the victims’ families.

Local businesses have donated money to pay for the resodding and restoration of the park, according to Edie Hylton, manager of community services for the Foothills parks system.

By fall, a permanent memorial to the Columbine shooting will be built. The school also will reopen in the fall, and officials said this week it could cost up to $50 million to cover rebuilding, counseling, enhanced security and possible litigation.

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Some of the money will come from corporate coffers, from the very companies that have put up conspicuous banners around the memorial. “Love and prayers from the employees of US West,” said one.

“Corporate and institutional tie-ins, we feel your pain,” said Erika Doss, director of the American Studies program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Doss, who just published a book titled “Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith and Image,” is working on a book about shrines such as Columbine’s.

“This is part of an abiding human need to participate in part of the ritual that gives our lives meaning,” she said. “It’s a kind of civil religion. We need to cry in a public space. The Columbine memorial site is the most overt [spontaneous shrine] in American history. It makes Oklahoma City look small.”

The Oklahoma City bombing site became, like Clement Park, the repository for massive amounts of odd remnants of personal sorrow. Columbine has its share of the bizarre--a guest book sitting atop a gaily painted pedestal, a carved wooden grizzly bear, hair brushes and lipstick.

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Greg Zanis is a contractor from Aurora, Ill. He learned carpentry from his father-in-law, who was killed a few years ago. Since then, Zanis has driven around the country erecting wooden crosses at the scenes of slayings as a way to help loved ones grieve. He calls his informal program Crosses for Losses.

Last week, he and his son Chris drove to Colorado with 15 crosses stowed in the back of his green pickup. They arrived at Clement Park early one morning and trudged up a grassy knoll overlooking the park. With help from those who were already at the memorial, Zanis dug holes for the crosses. To each he had carefully affixed a newspaper photograph of the dead.

After the 45-minute installation, Zanis and his son climbed back in their truck for the drive home.

What Zanis, a soft-spoken and deeply religious man, didn’t count on, was the pitched emotions the crosses would evoke. The crosses for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold--the two shooters--were immediately set upon by mourners. Their photos were X’d out. The messages scrawled in felt-tip pen on their wooden crosses were vituperative. A sample: “God forgives you as you lie with Satan.”

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The crosses quickly became a focal point for grief and anger. At one point, a fight broke out between mourners and two young women who had brought flowers to Harris’ and Klebold’s crosses. Finally, last Friday, the father of slain student Daniel Rohrbough stormed up the hill and tore down the two offending crosses, saying they did not belong there.

Zanis, hurt and angry after receiving more than 300 phone messages at his home about the shrine, got in his truck and drove back to Colorado. Some time before sunrise on Sunday he took down the remaining 13 crosses and drove off.

“I never intended it to be a scene of hate,” he said.

By Monday, Zanis was inundated with calls again, this time by those saying they missed the crosses, which had eclipsed all other shrines at the memorial.

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On Wednesday, he was back, with another 13 crosses planted at Clement Park and two others he would erect elsewhere.

“After all,” he said of Harris and Klebold, “they have families who mourn them too.”


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