Remembrance is a project that started out when I was living in North Essex. After work, I used to go for a walk in the woods behind our home. Part of the route involved going past a graveyard. I kept looking at the way the headstones were laid out and decided to get a photograph one day of them. As I entered the place, I was fascinated by the many different ways that people seek to remember their loved ones. The toys and lights that adorned children’s graves were heartbreaking to see. I could only think that their family put these items there so that the child would be looked after, even though they seemed to me to be in a lonely and sad place. Seeing the graves, the raw emotions that were on display such as love, loss and humour, encouraged me to start looking at other locations.
I soon moved from how people mark graves in the act of remembrance to apply the same ideas to other places, such as roadsides, benches at popular viewpoints, etc.
Death is something that we do not tend to talk about very often, mostly we talk about ‘being happy’. However, we are confronted with it often in our daily lives (such as looking at the news on the internet). Even though we don’t talk about it often, we can’t get away from it.
Within the UK, dying and death is quite a sanitised experience. Mostly, it tends to happen within a hospital environment, in a highly medicalised way. When my grandmother was dying, my grandfather, mother and uncle took her back home to die there instead of the clinical environment of the local hospital. It was incredibly hard for our family, but I am glad that she ended her life in that way, surrounded by her loved ones. My grandfather died in hospital after a short illness, it was quite a contrast experiencing him die there. Whilst the staff were good there, it has always felt wrong to me that he died there.
The remembrance project is not about mapping the process of dying, but about how we British seek to remember those that we love and miss. Typically, for the most part, such remembrance tends to be understated and subtle. Apart from events like the death of princess Diana many years ago, loss tends to be a more private experience. Grieving is quite ritualised in it’s form, and commonly people are expected to ‘move on’ or ‘suffer in silence’. Stiff upper lip, and all that – some traditions die hard.
One of the things that I have picked up as I have visited graveyards is the similarity between one place and another across the UK. The ways that we remember appear to be a cultural phenomenon, rather than something idiosyncratic to a particular region.
Also, the recent shift in placing lights, toys, football kit, etc. at graves has not been met with universal acceptance, in some areas people don’t like this trend. Instead, they prefer the simple adornment of flowers, much more in keeping with traditional values. Personally, I like to see life remembered and celebrated in different ways.