Friday, 17 June 2011

Shrines and memorials

What an interesting discussion over on the good old GFG recently, as you will discover if you hover your cursor over the title above.

Read it? Good. On we go, then.

I'd like to take up a couple of points made by Thomas both in the post and in his comment. He is as thoughtful and eloquent as ever.

He seems to me to be saying that memorials need to imply "hopes of a continued existence in another (world)" if they are to avoid disrespecting the past and losing our bearings in the present.

I'm not taking sides here (supernaturals vs materialists, as it were) but surely it is possible to make meaningful commeration for people with no such beliefs, by people with, apparently, no such beliefs? People still go to Highgate to see Karl Marx, and Communist leaders are famous for being stuffed and mounted post-mortem for the public gaze. Nasty, you might think, but it is, or was, meaningful, presumably even for the hordes of Russian visitors to Joe Stalin's embalmed and mustachiod fizzog who were Christians in their hearts and hated the old tyrant.

Even if Russians' attitudes to Stalin's tomb have changed, that change is surely part of a huge historical and cultural shift which is itself resonant?

More trivially perhaps, John Lennon was, I think, an atheist, yet his fans still gather at various shrines to him, whether in Prague, New York or Liverpool.

As for the scattering of ashes being devoid of meaning, and transient - to you, good Thomas, maybe, but not necessarily to the people who do the scattering.

I know a piece of rocky foreshore where ashes were scattered and a small plastic plaque affixed (quite illegally!) to a rock only exposed at low tide - it says that Dad will still be able to look over to the mountains he loved. I don't think these people were necessarily running away from anything, they may well not have believed in an afterlife in other than a "perhapsist" sense, but I think we can be confident that the view of the foreshore and the distant hills will serve them well as place full of symbolic meaning and personal resonance, maybe even some comfort. Hope so.

As someone said once somewhere, a society without a sense of its own history is like a man without a memory - but at the family level, a memory, and a sense of history, does not only depend on public memorials. I don't agree with Mrs Thatcher's infamous comment that there is no such thing as society, only families, but it seems to me that society starts at the level of family interaction and family history. A shrine is a shrine, whether it is a low-tide rock, a winged angel, or a bunch of photos and a candle once a year. Who are we to define how people define who they are?

As it happens, I don't much care for ashes-scattering either - a bit of Granny in the eye on a windy afternoon does not, in my book, make for a meaningful event - and when someone said to me recently that they would be bringing Mother home from the crem whilst they decided where she should rest, I of course didn't say "that won't be your Mother, she's gone; that's simply what the flames can't consume of her body." That's me, not them. Each of us creates post-mortem meaning in our own ways.

We are chucking out the wisdom of the past when we show our children and young people, by our own behaviour, that we can't be bothered with understanding the past. Classical music, classical literature, real jazz, old paintings - hard work, aren't they? It's not that Vermeer is "better" than Shrek, or that George Eliot is better than Robert Ludlum, it's just that if you only do Shrek and Ludlum, a world of feeling, a range of understanding, is likely to be shut off from you. (And vice versa, no doubt, but on my desert island....)

Family history may be harder to "do" without public memorials, but I'm not sure we should extrapolate this into deciding that we are chucking out the wisdom of the past because we are not building substantial public memorials. And no-one loves a classy memorial more than me - one of the pleasures of lurking in churches.

One of my favourite memorials isn't a substantial object at all, yet for me it rings out down the centuries. It is also one of the shortest, to a famous person, and it still moves me with its implicit denial of time's obliterating hand and its restrained celebration of genius:

"O Rare Ben Jonson"

(ps OK, I'll come clean - of course George Eliot is better than Ludlum, and there's more in Ben Jonson than there is in Shrek, it's just harder to get to. Walking up a fell is harder work than sitting watching BBC3. Well, in the physical sense, anyway.)


  1. There's a fine line between chucking out and leaving behind. A culture which drags too much heritage baggage is going to lose its dynamism - arguably the case in the UK today where judges dress up as pantomime dames and there's all this honouring of tradition with no knowledge of history. Judicious cultural decluttering is vital to vitality.

    Hard decisions, though. We shall shortly lose the language of the King James bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the experience of joining voices in The Day Thou Gavest at evensong in a country church (the sort of Anglican church where ardent professions of faith are regarded askance). Can't help but sigh a bit wistfully.

    I'm with you about starting at the family level. Families should make an effort to record the life and preserve the memory.

    Public memorials? To have one erected because you think you're worth it would seem presumptuous. If confident in your reputation you might leave it to the establishment to put you on a pedestal. Failing that, the public will do their democratic decision and decide what and for how long. So we see Ringo's house wrangled over now. It's a shrine and the council wants to knock it down. Houses are a very C20 public memorial (in the absence of an equestrian statue of said Ringo.

    Ashes scattering is not nihilistic if recorded, especially in photos.

    It's difficult. And diverse. And I think we have to see what happens and trust - and regret errors along the way, sure, but not deplore them. We muddle through. This is how we live.

  2. Forgive me if this sounds a tad shallow, but one of the main reasons why I'm so taken with the more 'traditional' and historical memorials isn't so much the meaning behind them. It's the sheer drama of them - the scale, the design, the very presence. They give me goose bumps. Take Charles Sargeant Jagger's Royal Artillery Memorial. I know it's representative of more than one individual but what a statement...
    I agree with you both that we create our own meaning and it is truly diverse. And while diversity is perhaps seen as a 'healthier' and more PC way of doing things than having a style of memorial that is deemed acceptable, I think something has been lost along the way. The dramatic memorials in places like Highgate had meaning and made an impression on both the family in question and the general public who never knew them, while today's memorials are loaded with meaning for the family but have little or no impact beyond that circle. A good thing - after all it's about them not us. Perhaps that's the difference now? They are not the 'public' statements they once were.
    Sorry if I've strayed off the point. It's late. Busy day. Brain frazzled...

  3. Thanks both for highly nutritious responses - all v interesting, and actually rather important, I feel.
    Oi, CB, nothing shallow about your goose-bumps - the sculptor would be delighted to hear it, exactly what he (probably he) was aiming at! I think we can still make the public statements for the public figures - isn't there a bit of a resurgence in public sculpture of this sort? In Dublin they not only have Phil Lynott there on the street, there's also Molly Malone, who as one wit said, looks as though she's selling more than molluscs - but still, a kind of recognition and rememberance of days of yore. Mr. L, with all due respect, a bit less significant than your Royal Artillery memorial CB, but I guess he has his place in his own city. (Didn't much care for Thin Lizzy meself, but that's hardly the point - don't much care for wars, but we all really need the war memorials, Lest We Forget.)

    The awful phrase "days of yore" brings me to Charles' excellently neat point about the respect for tradition without the understanding of history, which I agree is dangerous, a drag on the present, arterio-sclerotic ignorance freezing up our intellects and imaginations and preventing us from understanding the past so we can live in the present.

    It distresses me that some atheist/rationalists, and some don't knows/perhapsists, seem to turn their backs on the entire cultural and intellectual heritage of Christianity because they don't go to church.

    Maybe we can find ways for public commemoration, and re-think our commemoration of more "ordinary" people, without the deadly anonymity and uniformity of council cemeteries. And we see people trying to do it by decorating the municipal tombstone with silk flowers, wind-chimes etc, thuis infuriating the more traditionally-minded. Thus we muddle forward, feeling our way. One thing's for sure - PC is no help at all in such matters, is it!

    Thanks both.

  4. Just a thought...

    We use the word 'traditional' but I think, perhaps, what we're really talking about is taste. Traditional = equals tasteful. Plastic flowers, wind chimes, soggy toys = not so tasteful. That sounds snobby and harsh and unfeeling, perhaps. But I wonder if this is what's not being said? Taste is subjective, which is what makes this so complex and diverse. Some people think the modern, balloon-strewn graves are overly sentimental, but what about all those weeping Victorian angels and cherub faces? The difference is in the presentation.
    Personally, I think what we don't see enough of is the modern take on the traditional, such as the beautiful Memorials by Artists. See them at
    These seem to me to be the half way point between the old and the new way of doing things – still highly personal but beautiful to look at.

  5. And an interesting thought it is.
    It is complex and diverse; perhaps especially in Britain we tend to think restraint = good taste, and soggy soft toys and plastic winchimes show little restraint and are therefore tasteless; Victorian weeping angels also show little restraint, but they are in a well-established genre - maybe when they first came in, people at the time thought they were a little de trop, outre etc? (Their theological underpinnings are surely shaky - why would an angel weep for a departed soul? Surely it would be celebrating the arrival of another heavenly immigrant?)
    Maybe ideas of taste just won't"work"in such a context? My honest feeling is your sentimentality, my restraint is your unfeeling coldness - in memorials as in behaviour.

    Incidentally, I don't think what you write is harsh and snobbish, CB - you are reporting on the perceptions of others, and I think you're right, people's objections seem to have been about an idea of tatse in an emotionally charged public place, not about distinctive memorialisation as such.

    Maybe we need a popular philosopher like Aidan de Botton to sort this out for us!

    I'll certainly check out the memorials by artists, thanks for that.

  6. With regard to taste, perhaps we might adapt Wilde O: a memorial is neither good nor bad, it is either well or badly wrought. So 10 ex 10 to Mr Jagger, though I can never contemplate anything wrought from Portland stone without ambivalence, for it is quarried at cost to my beautiful, hacked island.

    Mr Jagger's memorial is also sustainable; the public purse will keep it there for ever and ever. The sad and irreversible fact about Victorian burial grounds, London's 'magnificent seven' in particular, is that they are not sustainable, therefore they are self-annihilating.

    Public memorial sculpture can be brilliant, its subjects controversial: Bomber Harris, for example. In any case, it is not only the newsworthy who achieve heroic status. Perhaps every town should have, as you suggest, GM (to take your excellent idea a stage further), a Statue of the Unknown Hero and people can ascribe to it whoever they please. This could be 'rolled out' as a Big Society initiative.

    Memos by Artists fab. Sadly struggling.

    This debate hath no end. And that is every reason for having it!

  7. I imagine Memorials by Artists is struggling because most people don't know they exist, you may have to pay a bit more for something that is so beautifully hand-crafted and unique (made in the UK not China), and they don't fit into the ludicrous height/width/depth rules which govern our burial grounds. Grrrrrrrr...

  8. I wonder if it is the individual artists who are struggling, or the umbrella organisation? I hope to visit one of them soon, and he seems pretty busy. As for the price - don't know yet, but quality tells, and quality, quite rightly, costs. Judging by the website, this bloke's work is absolutely beautiful.

    The same sentiment in municipal granite standard font (or phonily respectful mock-Gothic, sorry if that's snobbish) and in lettering by a true artist/carver, mean different things, to me.

    Let's hope you've done a bit to help them along by drawing our attention to them here. Thanks, CB.