The End of the Beginning?

As the Remember Me Project winds down, the team looks back over three years of exploring aspects of remembrance and memorialisation, and ponder what the future holds.

The Remember Me project is coming to a close after nearly 3 years of exploring the ways in which memorialisation has been practised in the past, is changing in the present, and what it might look like in the future.

Over the past three years we have ranged from earliest prehistory, through to cyberspace. The project has involved 10 distinct strands of research, incorporating archaeology, history, social sciences, anthropology and photography. This wide-ranging exploration is one that has been illuminating and fulfilling, and many of you have joined us on this journey via our blog and social media (Facebook and Twitter).

Now seems an appropriate time to look back on that journey and remember Remember Me.

Our journey began with a flurry of fieldwork for the case study Heroes and Loved Ones [insert link], conducting a survey with attendees of Remembrance Sunday services and commemorations in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

Photographer Liz Nicol also engaged with attendees, producing a series of photographs of hands. This was for Liz the beginning of a journey that would take her to the Somme and back [insert link to Somme blog post], forming a lasting connection with photographing the memorials and legacy of the First World War. Liz’s work culminated in the exhibition Endlessness, which showcased images taken with a First World War era Box Brownie camera, alongside colour and black and white digital photography images of memorials, cyanotypes, objectographs and video displays.

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‘Hands’ Portrait photograph taken at the Memorial Gardens, Beverley on Remembrance Sunday 2015. Photograph copyright Liz Nicol

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In the months that followed, Remember Me’s Dr Miroslava (‘Mirka’) Hukelova  conducted a series of in-depth interviews with a number of people who had attended the Remembrance Sunday Commemorations in Beverley. These participants gave generously of their time and we are grateful to them for sharing their personal feelings and insights into what Remembrance Sunday means to them in the 21st century.

Dr Miroslava Hukelova and Professor Margaret Holloway delivered a preliminary interpretation of the study at the Fourth International Conference of the British Association for Spirituality in May 2016, and Michael S. Drake, who was leading the case study, presented a paper at the Biopolitical Matters Symposium at the University of Warwick in June that same year.

The results of this research were fed back to the local community on Remembrance Sunday the following year (2016) through a public poster display at Beverley Minster and St Mary’s church. Interview participants were invited to a feedback event in which the Heroes and Loved Ones researchers Dr Michael S. Drake, Dr Miroslava Hukelova, and Professor Margaret Holloway shared with participants how their contributions had shaped the research of the Remember Me project, and our findings.

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Members of the public viewing the Remember Me poster display in Beverley Minster, November, 2016

Dr Michael Drake travelled to Sarajevo in July 2017 to deliver a paper at the conference ‘Why Remember? Memory and Forgetting in Times of War and Its Aftermath’. Tragically, just weeks after this conference Dr Drake died suddenly. His unexpected death was a great shock to the team, who have rallied together to bring the case study to completion with a survey of a century of newspaper reporting on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday commemorations. Dr Jenny Macleod has been assisting the team in analysing this historical data.

Meanwhile, the case study Identity, Meaning and Memorialisation in the British Diaspora conducted fieldwork in far-flung locations from Barbados to Sierra Leone and South Africa, and in Britain, traversed the length and breadth of the British Isles from Orkney to Cardiff.

Child graves of Jewish settlers at Barbados. Photograph copyright Nicholas J. Evans
Forgotten slave burial ground, Barbados. Photograph copyright Nicholas J. Evans
Graves of Ebola victims at Sierra Leone. Photograph copyright Lee Karen Stow.

Nick Evans, Angela McCarthy, Suzanne Schwarz and Lee Karen Stow recorded the memorial legacy of British persons who died abroad as well as the memorials of those who lived and died alongside them.

Nick and Angela’s research into Scottish diaspora memorials was showcased in an ESRC seminar series at the National Museum of Scotland in 2016. Collaborator Suzanne Schwarz, Nick Evans and PhD student Samuel North all presented their research at the Death and Culture conference in York. Nick also presented a paper ‘Stones Speak: Jewish burial culture and racial uncertainty in postcolonial Barbados’ at the conference Jews in Racialized Spaces, hosted Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, University of Cape Town in March 2017.

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Prof Margaret Holloway chairs a panel discussion at the ESRC Seminar series at the National Museum of Scotland.

While Nick Evans and his team were exploring the diaspora from Britain out into the wider world, Dr Lisa Dikomitis and Dr Marcin Biernat focussed in on the way Polish migrants in Hull dealt with dying and death, which funerary rituals took place, and how Polish migrants were being memorialised. Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in a time of social and political upheaval, the team started just before the Brexit referendum and fieldwork continued for a year after the inhabitants of Hull had voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit.

Participant-observation was conducted in a wide range of settings where Polish migrants gathered: church group meetings, activities organised by the local Polish community centre, the All Saints Ball for Polish children, First November procession at the cemetery, and public memorial services (e.g., a War Graves memorial Service), events organised by the Polish Saturday schools in Hull (e.g., the annual summer festival, a day trip to attend Polish graves in nearby cemeteries), regular visits to a large number of Polish shops and restaurants, and, most importantly, religious services for the Polish community (masses, funerals and memorials). Marcin and Lisa also conducted twenty-six semi-structured interviews with various stakeholders: Poles in Hull, funeral directors and stakeholders in the Polish community (e.g., charity workers, priests, Consul officials). In addition to daily interactions with Poles in Hull, they also conducted online research.

Polish Study 1
Polish Festival in Hull
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Procession in a local cemetery during early November

Marcin shared insights and stories from his homeland and the case study highlighted the richness and increasing diversity of memorialisation practices at home and abroad. Lisa and Marcin presented their findings at the 2017 BSA Annual Conference and Marcin presented a paper at the ‘Europe and Poland in the age of migration’ conference at the University of Poznan. In December 2017 Lisa and Marcin travelled to Poland where they shared their findings in seminars held at the University of Opole and Katowice, where they were able to engage in fruitful discussion about culture and the Polish diaspora.

Alongside these case studies, Remember Me conducted two wide-ranging surveys: Deep in Time, which examined death, burial and memorialisation practices from the prehistoric period in Britain, through to AD 1640; and, Displaying Self which explored the diversity of contemporary practice.

The Deep Time study, conducted by Dr Yvonne Inall and Professor Malcolm Lillie, found that many practices associated with dying, death, burial and memorialisation recur across time. At different points in time cremation was the favoured burial rite, while at others inhumation burial predominated. Memorials drew upon the potency of earlier monuments, with Bronze Age barrows often associated with pre-existing Neolithic monuments, such as long barrows, or the extensive barrow cemeteries laid out in the landscape surrounding Stonehenge. Iron Age burials at places like Poundbury, Dorset were sited in close proximity to an earlier Bronze Age barrow. Romano-British monuments were closely associated with military centres, and saw the introduction of inscribed gravestones to Britain for the first time. Anglo-Saxon burial and cremation burials often emulated, or were associated with, earlier Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman monuments. As the Anglo-Saxon world transitioned to the Medieval period the dominance of the Church, and the role of Purgatory, came to the fore, resulting in a professionalisation of memorialisation, partnered with a pervasive need to be remembered. The British Reformation reframed remembrance for the newly Protestant population with the abolition of chantries. The vast diversity of past memorialisation practices offers a rich repertoire for contemporary and future memorialisation practices. Aspects of the Deep Time study were presented at the Death in Culture conference at the University of York and the (Dis)Connected forms conference at the University of Hull in 2016, and at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology conference in 2017.

The survey Displaying Self, conducted by Dr Miroslava Hukelova and Dr Louis Bailey  explored modern memorialisation practices, from established memorial forms such as gravestones, park benches, and roadside memorials to emerging forms including green burials, virtual cemeteries and online memorials, as well as innovative and personalised remembrances, including tattoos and other objects, which may incorporate cremation ashes. Commemoration of mass mortality events such as accidents or terrorist attacks result in spontaneous memorials, some of which give way to permanent monuments, or evolve into social justice campaigns.

Expanding on the theme of contemporary practice, the case studies Freewriting in Palliative Care and Bereavement, Who Were They? Trans Identities and Memorialisation, and Celebrating the Life: The Hidden Face of Dementia, conducted deeper explorations into particular aspects of memorialisation in contemporary Britain.

Rev Dr Andrew Goodhead  conducted fieldwork at 10 hospices in England and Northern Ireland, examining the messages written in memorial books. People wrote touching messages to their lost loved ones, some returning year after year to update the departed on the big events happening in the lives of those who remembered them, and missed them still. Alongside this detailed textual analysis, Andrew conducted participant observation of memorial services and the ways in which hospices engage in memorialisation practices with their community. Andrew’s findings are now feeding in to the development of a guidance document that can assist hospices in facilitating memorialisation activities in the future. Andrew also be delivered a seminar to the Leeds Bereavement Forum in July 2018, and he will also be presenting his work on the 27th of November when he attends the Hospice UK National Conference.

Dr Louis Bailey engaged closely with the Trans community and people who had been bereaved of a trans person in the case study Who Were They? Trans Identity and Memorialisation. The experiences they shared with Remember Me were tremendously personal, and often painful, with the incidence of suicide amongst trans persons much higher than the general population. Trans persons responding to our survey underscored the importance of acknowledging a person’s felt gender over gender assigned at birth both in life and vis-à-vis memorialisation after death. However, Louis’ interviews revealed that gender identities were often contested by loved ones after death. This research was presented at the ESRC seminar series ‘Encountering Corpses: political, socio-economic and cultural aspects of contemporary encounters with dead bodies’ at Hull York Medical School in November 2017. Louis plans to work towards the development of some guidance documents for coroners and funeral industry professionals, who may find themselves engaging with trans persons.

Professor Margaret Holloway led the case study Celebrating the Life: The Hidden Face of Dementia, assisted by Dr Miroslava Hukelova. The study incorporated interviews with people who were bereaved of someone who had lived with dementia. For many interviewees it took time to process the complex emotions around the personality changes and challenges associated with caring for, losing and mourning a person with dementia. Reconciling pre-dementia and post-diagnosis memories into an acceptance of the whole life could be a challenging and highly emotional journey. These interviews were followed by focus groups with professional carers, who had only come to know those they cared for after they had been diagnosed, and often with advanced stage dementia. These carers embraced those in their care, considering them family, but wished they knew more of their pre-dementia lives. Margaret Holloway is working towards the development of a practice guide to help families and carers create positive memories, integrating the whole life and the whole person, based on the research findings of the case study.

Our New Zealand collaborator, Ruth McManus, conducted a collaborative study exploring the British Diaspora in New Zealand, and examined the ways in which the First World War has been commemorated.

As each strand of the project worked towards its objectives, the team was also planning a major international conference, which was held in April 2018. The conference brought together researchers from Britain, Continental Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand for three and a half days of presentations around the themes of remembrance and memorialisation. Presenters included archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, artists, celebrants and funeral directors, and hospice chaplains, all engaging in truly multidisciplinary discourse.

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Yet the work is not over. It is both poignant and inspiring that as the ‘Remember Me’ project comes to an end, a community in West London comes together for the memorial events to mark one year since the Grenfell Tower fire in which 71 people, including a still-born baby, died.  Movingly expressed in the words, actions and behaviours of survivors and those bereaved, are the themes which have resonated so strongly, across time, in our research: the importance of memorialisation in promoting healing –  for individuals and communities; the search for that which will give some meaning  – in this case justice and ensuring such an atrocity never happens again – to a devastating occurrence; the solidarity of standing shoulder to shoulder with others in grief; the equal importance of the deaths of loved ones being marked by a wider community.

The rituals and symbols tailored by the Grenfell community to meet these needs encapsulate how multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-belief societies of the developed world in the twenty-first century approach our meetings with death; drawing on tradition but customising it to be ‘fit for purpose’ in this situation for these people; finding the tools and vehicles through which we can take, convey and share meaning; establishing the spaces and places which allow private thoughts in public places; and, most, importantly, reminding us all that memorialisation is an ongoing process which allows life to continue but ensures that those lives lost are not forgotten.

Academic research is not better knowledge than personal experience, but the two together can be a powerful force. Applying and disseminating our findings to the complex challenges of contemporary death is an ongoing task which the ‘Remember Me’ project team is committed to pursuing.

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