This year, 2016 has already been marked by a number of high-profile celebrity deaths including David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Prince and most recently Muhammad Ali. These losses have resulted in outpourings of public grief and the creation of spontaneous memorials across the Western world.
Yet, this kind of response addresses a much deeper societal need. It is not only the death of celebrities in “an age when death has become another opportunity for public spectacle, something that’s sexier than sex, the best career move you’ve ever made” as Jenny Diski (who has also passed away in April this year) recently wrote in the Guardian . Spontaneous memorials have become a ‘basic human need’. People laid flowers, photos and memorabilia at different sites following the devastating terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, in the wake of natural disasters such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal or floods in India, and the aftermath of personal tragedies of road fatalities and suicides. What is it that drives people to construct these temporary memorials?
There is a sense of unity and solidarity displayed through the construction of spontaneous memorials, often spreading across the nation and becoming a national ‘tragedy’ which cuts through differences and brings everyone together. Spontaneous memorials are unbound, they cross bordersand display our shared humanity. Flowers and candles were placed outside of French Embassies following the attacks in Paris.
Following the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan in 2011, tributes were placed by the Japanese embassy in Moscow. Expressions of solidarity and sympathy have also moved online with many individuals altering their Facebook profile pictures with overlays of the French and Belgian flags in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
The ongoing need to express loss, grief and remembrance can see temporary, spontaneous memorials transition into more permanent memorials. The temporary tributes to the Hillsborough disaster led to the creation of a memorial plague, which has become a focal point for the placement of flowers and tributes.The tributes at Hillsborough speak to a loss that is felt at national, community and personal levels.Private loss and grief is made public in this space, it is shared with others.
Similarly, the very personal tragedies experienced as a result of road deaths are commemorated around the world through the creation of roadside memorials and ghost bikes.
Memorialisation and remembering need to be physically expressed and performed in the aftermath of loss whether it is felt at a personal, community or global level. Through this practice people may find solace and support.