Memorialisation practices among the Poles in Hull: emergent findings (part two)

Dr Lisa Dikomitis, Remember Me Co-Investigator, continues her report on the Case Study ‘Countries Old and New’

Dr Anna Piela has now left our ‘Remember Me’ team to take up a full-time position at Leeds Trinity. We wish her well in her new job and are grateful for her enthusiasm during the fieldwork she conducted for our project. I am very pleased to welcome Dr Marcin Biernat to our team and he will be working closely with me to continue our ethnographic fieldwork among the Poles in Hull.

Here is a snapshot of the data we have collected so far. It is too soon to draw any firm conclusions, but I wanted to share some emergent findings.

Our data highlights a number of issues related to the Polish community in Hull (and the surrounding area):

  • There are two quite distinct groups of Poles living in the area, the ‘settled’ and the ‘new’ community. Each group displays different characteristics, although there are also similarities and there is some interaction between the two groups. There are also variations within both groups, for example based on the region of Poland where one comes from, socioeconomic class, and political or religious sympathies.
  • While each of these groups generally has a different understanding and interpretation of what is tradition, they both draw from it. They also depart from tradition, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
  • The same observation applies to funeral and memorialisation traditions. The observed practices and rituals range from mostly traditional, to less conventional. It is very likely that the fact that these practices are situated in the UK, facilitates the gradual transformation of tradition. It is however important to note that these traditions and practices are subject to change in Poland too.

The ‘settled’ Poles in Hull

All individuals in this group we spoke to expressed their resentment at being addressed as ‘migrants’. This is obviously identity work – they create identity boundaries that separate them from the Poles who arrived post-accession. An explanation that came up in two conversations was that the community of ‘settled’ Poles consisted of exiles, refugees, who arrived in the UK during WW2 or shortly after, and were unable to return due to political repressions enacted by the communist government of Poland.  This status was somewhat formalised by the fact that the UK was the home for the Polish ‘exile government’ that claimed to carry the political legitimacy of the pre-war, democratically elected government of Poland. According to one informant, some Poles settled in the UK were proud of never getting the UK citizenship or passport. One Polish man mentioned that it was actually after Brexit that he was called a migrant by a co-worker which he found offensive.

Newly arrived Poles in Hull

The community of Polish migrants in Hull are widely considered a fragmented group that lacks solidarity and community spirit. This is also noted by some of our informants themselves. We observed and interviewed people from different parts of Poland and of different backgrounds and political leanings, achieving a good variation in the otherwise small sample.

Funeral traditions

We observed a whole range of practices. The one ‘full service’ funeral we saw was unusual, according to the priest, both in terms of style, and the fact that the burial was actually in the UK. It was very much like a typical service and burial in Poland. While cremations are certainly more popular in Poland now than in the past, the popularity of cremation among Poles in the UK is undoubtedly dictated by lower costs (important for those in low-paid professions) and subsequent ease of transport

Lack of planning and preparation for death can be seen in cases where Polish families are struggling with the costs of cremation/burial/body transport and have to resort to public fundraising in order to meet these costs. It is possible that the informal practice of carrying the ashes in hold luggage is a result of financial hardship. Clearly following religious and cultural requirements of death management (such as showing ‘proper respect’ to the body) has its financial implications that not everybody in the diaspora can meet.  Equally, social norms related to death, strong behaviour predictors in small Polish towns and villages, do not exert such a strong influence in the UK. There is no Co ludzie powiedza? (‘What will people say?’) component and so people who are unable to meet the costs of an expensive funeral do not feel the need to take loans (as is common in Poland which was criticised by some of our informants). Hence it may just be seen more acceptable to be financially restrained in the organisation of the funeral.

While the large majority of Polish deaths in the UK result in the transportation of the body or ashes back to Poland, there are also some unconventional (by Polish standards) ways of burial. One such grave can be observed near the Chanterlands crematorium in Hull. The grave is a small plot with a rose bush and the name of the deceased in a long row of similar plots. It is definitely an example of adopting a new/foreign tradition native to the host country. The practice of keeping the ashes at home, as the local Polish priest told us, is unheard of in Poland.

In addition to the popularity of cremations, it is possible that one element of the burial tradition will change in time. It is remarkable (and strange to non-Polish people) that the deceased is metaphorically invisible in Polish burial and post-burial rites. There is no eulogy by Catholic priests or the family during the religious service, and generally the post-funeral meal is devoid of references to the deceased. The references made by the priest are usually in relation to the resurrection and other religious beliefs. However, the eulogy is practiced among the settled Poles. It is possible that the influence of this British tradition, and progressive secularisation, will lead to the adoption of the eulogy, and the symbolic bringing back the deceased to their own funeral.

 Comments very welcome. Please email l.a.dikomitis@keele.ac.uk

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