Remember Me. A Year in Review

Principal Investigator, Emeritus Professor Margaret Holloway reflects on the first year of the Remember Me project.

As much of the world prepares to celebrate Christmas and New Year, Yvonne Inall and Andrew Goodhead point out that this is also a time for remembering those people who are no longer with us; the festive season may be a sad time and for some the memories are still intensely painful. The end of one year and the start of the next is also a time, when, commonly, we reflect on the year that has gone and consider what we want to do, or feel we ought to do, with the year that lies ahead. Remembrance and review, we are finding on this project, are integral to the process of memorialisation and tend to go hand in hand.

More prosaically, as ‘Remember Me’ passes its Year 1 milestone and moves towards the half-way point, I am conscious as PI of the need to review progress and make sure we are on track. So here are some of the highlights and progress to date. We launched the project in November 2015 with a fieldwork exercise associated with the ‘Heroes and Loves Ones’ case study on Remembrance Sunday in the East Riding town of Beverley. I wouldn’t normally countenance hitting the ground running so publicly only one week after the official start of a project, especially one as complex as this, but the way in which the local population embraced the research was a fantastic and moving endorsement of its value to individuals and its potential contribution to enhancing community well-being. And of course, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War 2, so it seemed a good moment to find out what Remembrance Sunday means to all sorts of people today.

Some of our findings were displayed in poster form in the town to coincide with Remembrance Sunday 2016 and we held a feedback event a week later which provoked some interesting discussions among the audience. What we are finding, however, is that, for someone somewhere, and often for groups of people, communities or nations, there is always a significant time and memorial. As one of our respondents put it: ‘I came to the conclusion that remembering is important, not necessarily for the philosophy that I had thought it all through, but when it came down to it, it was a basic need that I had to do, and it brought tears to my eyes, to see these people.’

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Visitors to Beverley Minster and St Mary’s, Beverley found our posters very interesting.

This same welcoming of the research has marked the commencement of each of the contemporary case studies and research strands. Louis Bailey joined the team in June 2016 and has made a fascinating start to data collection on the transgender case study, ‘Who were They?’ as participant observer in the Manchester Transgender Day of Remembrance in November. We feared that the BREXIT vote in June might cast a long shadow over the meanings embedded in ‘Countries Old and New’, the study of Polish migrants in Hull, but Lisa Dikomitis and Marcin Biernat (who joined the team from Poland in October) are uncovering a cultural life rich in embedded traditions  overlaid with contemporary approximations. When I queried what children dressing up as saints on Hallowe’en had to do with memorialisation it was patiently explained to me that the party is a local priest’s initiative to encourage his flock to remember, celebrate and learn from the real lives of the saints in their own tradition rather than being spooked by imaginary ghosts from a commercialised imported tradition! Andrew Goodhead has been traversing the UK reading the thoughts of bereaved people set down in memorial books and observing the now-established phenomenon of annual (or more frequent) bereavement and memorial services in hospices. Mirka Hukelova and I have been cautiously approaching dementia charities only to find an eagerness from bereaved relatives and people with dementia to explore the question of how the life of a person with dementia is commemorated and how they themselves might wish to be remembered. The topic is sensitive but how can we as a society ignore something which increasingly challenges how we engage with the contemporary trend for ‘Celebrating the Life’ rather than commemorating the death?

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One of the presentations at the Dementia Quality Care conference in London. Photograph by Mirka Hukelova

These contemporary explorations are greatly benefitting from continuing work on the archaeological  and historical studies, alongside which Liz Nicol is building her reflection through photography on memorials to the past and how they are incorporated into the memorialising processes of individuals now. The significance of place, use of particular language, rituals tailored to specific categories, the marking of traumatic, uncomfortable and stigmatised deaths are among the interesting cross-cutting themes emerging. And every next piece of evidence uncovered belies the notion of ‘death the great leveller’ as we note the vigorous attempts made throughout history as much as now, to imprint the identity of the person on their enduring memorial, sometimes in death re-representing or transgressing those social, religious and gendered divisions which operated in life. The work of  Malcolm Lillie and Yvonne Inall on the ‘Deep in Time’ study and Nick Evans, with Suzanne Schwartz and Angela McCarthy, on the British Diaspora study is both informing and being illuminated by the emerging contemporary picture. Just as importantly, they are contributing to the development of significant sub-areas within their respective disciplines.

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Portrait photograph taken at the Memorial Gardens, Beverley on Remembrance Sunday 2015. Photograph copyright Liz Nichol

In Year 1 the team has been increasingly fascinated by the richness and diversity of memorial forms, practices and processes. In Year 2 we must again roll up our sleeves and make greater sense of that ‘basic need’ to which our respondent on the military case study referred. Death is something which we all find extraordinarily difficult – as individuals and societies – and the memorials we create and maintain and the memorialising behaviours and practices with which we engage may prove to be amongst the most enduring ways we have of facing the complexities of contemporary death.

Surveying Memorialisation in Freetown
The Taylors Family Sepulchre at the Circular Road Cemetery in Sierra Leone. To the right is Victor Smith, the cemetery caretaker

Emeritus Professor Margaret Holloway is Principal Investigator on the Remember Me project.

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