In a recent Guardian article David Rieff praised the art of forgetting in the creation of positive and cohesive national identities. He argued persuasively that an inability to let go of painful past events can cause very real harm in the present, using the Bosnian war as an example. The remedy for such pain, he says, should be forgetting. However, I would argue that what is needed is healthy remembering. Forms of remembrance that allow people, and even nations, to memorialise the dead, accept painful events of the past, achieve a sense of closure, and to move on into the future.
How would such healthy remembering be achieved? Is it remotely possible that First Australians could both remember and overcome the Stolen Generation? Could the Serbians Rieff spoke of in his article accept the pain of the fall of Constantinople in 1453? Can Rwanda accept the horrors of Tutsis slaughter at the hands of their Hutu countrymen and vice versa? And, when the time comes, will the people of Syria be able to remember the devastating events which have been unfolding over the last five years, embrace the inconceivable pain, and find a peaceful future?
What is the importance of remembering and memorialisation? And, why are we so insistent on remembering painful experiences?
The Remember Me project is examining past attitudes and technologies of memorialisation, how these have changed over time, and the ways they influence current approaches to memorialisation. We are presently in a time when memorialisation is
undergoing significant change, with memorial practices being adapted to meet changing individual as well as broader social needs.
What is emerging from our research is that in the process of memorialisation, remembering and forgetting are two sides of the same coin. Every act of remembering is simultaneously an act of forgetting as we make decisions about what should be remembered and how. Remembering and forgetting could have either positive or negative effects.
Memorialisation embracing positive aspects of remembering can:
• Allow suffers to find support and the solace needed to come to terms with painful losses and experiences
• Unify and strengthen families, and communities at local, national, and even at a global level
• Provide impetus for positive change through legacies and charitable trusts
• Act as physical reminders of loss, survival and connectedness
On the reverse side of this coin, negative forgetting can cause serious issues that can serve to deepen rather than ameliorate past hurts:
• Failure to remember the past, or wilful forgetting of some aspects can cause painful dislocation for individuals or community members
• Forgetting can create a sense of disconnectedness with the potential to foster disaffection
• Attempts to oblige the forgetting of painful past events can actually serve to deepen the sense of hurt, particularly if there are feelings of injustice
• Social amnesia can lack closure and may fail to heal past divisions
What is clear is that people cannot be made to forgive and forget and healthy remembering and memorialisation have an important role to play in pathways to healing.