The project

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The way British society approaches death and the memorialisation is changing. With an increasing emphasis on the individual, the project seeks to explore the making of meaning in memorial practices in Britain. Our research uses a range of methods, incorporating historical and contemporary surveys, case studies, ethnography, qualitative interviews, free-writing texts and photographic essays. We aim to combine data from a number of sources in a mixed methods design, tackling the research questions in different ways, in order to produce a comprehensive analysis of memorialisation.

The project explores a number of themes:

The research from each of these streams will be integrated to allow the development and exploration of cross-cutting themes. The project is informed by a Project Advisory Group made up of representatives of stakeholder groups and experts in the field of memorialisation studies.

Overview

The UK’s approach to death is changing. We are witnessing a renewed interest in the form and content of funerals and a rise in personalised requests. Central to this has been the rise of the humanist funeral, ostensibly as a reaction to the perceived impersonal nature of traditional religious funerals. Humanist funerals and memorial services, are now widely adopted by religious celebrants, bringing informality into celebrating and memorialising the person and life of the deceased. Yet, there remains a demand for ceremony and ritual, drawing on religious as well as other traditions. Research led by Prof Margaret Holloway identified dissatisfaction with the range of memorial forms currently available. The creation of personalised memorials was linked to the creation and taking of meaning as an ongoing process. There is growing anecdotal evidence of traditional memorials giving way to, and co-existing with, a rapidly developing range of alternative forms. These include: dedicated objects like gravestones or park benches; events such as memorial services; ongoing activities, like memorial foundations; and the use of new technologies through the creation of online memorials. Some of these practices constitute ‘new traditions’ coupled with emerging rituals. Researchers have observed a range of ritual behaviours, using physical and virtual places, structured around important dates, and making use of objects which have special significance for the bereaved. These emerging practices sustain a lasting relationship between the bereaved and the deceased, who continues to participate in the social world through these acts of memorialisation.

What informs the creation of new memorial traditions is less well understood, although they seem to vary according to religion and cultural tradition. It is unclear whether the purposes and functions of these new memorials differ radically from past forms. Archaeological and anthropological studies have long aimed to understand the cultural complexities of death, mourning, burial and memorialisation. The ‘deep time’ perspective afforded by archaeology, offers unique opportunities to assess changing perspectives on meanings of death and the mnemonics that are used to articulate memory and meaning for the living. Archaeology and anthropology are able to evaluate how memory can be re-constituted or re-created to reach a new socially accepted ‘norm’, and seek to understand the re-structuring of mnemonics and monumental representations in line with changing views on death and dying. Our study explores how objects can evoke memories of the past and influence the experience and actions of mourners, linking past, present and future.

In contemporary society, the modern emphasis on identity and individual meaning-making results in a focus on the person and life of the deceased. The bereaved invest considerable time and effort in impressing that identity on the memories of mourners. Even within a secular context there are links between personal meaning-making and spirituality. The significance of memorials and memorializing practices in contemporary secular and technological society is ongoing, providing a focus for social transition and a psychological and spiritual link between the living and the dead. Our research into available and emerging forms of memorial and memorialisation practices seeks to address a lack of understanding in this area. Four themes highlight the complexity of, and tensions in, emerging memorialisation practices. The first concerns the identity of the deceased as a contested concept between mourners; the second where the representation of the deceased and their life is shrouded in ambiguity; a third contrasts forms which are permanent and those which are virtual or transitory; and a fourth concerns the interface between public and private domains which may lead to conflict and dissonance. Our research explores these themes through the collective and individual remembering of fallen soldiers; memorialisation amongst migrants; of transgender people; and, in the face of dementia.

Aims and Objectives

The principle aim of this research is to produce a comprehensive analysis of memorialisation practices in the UK, past and present, including the British diaspora and the former British colony of New Zealand, in order to inform understanding of:

  • The significance of memorials and memorialising processes today and throughout history and their relative significance at different points in time
  • The purposes and meanings which memorials and memorialising processes fulfil today, the social effects observed in the past and the factors and contexts which shape these purposes, meanings and social effects
  • The forms and representations of memorials and memorialising processes, past and present, and how and why these may be changing in contemporary society

Stemming from this overarching objective we aim to:

  • Explore the role of religion in relation to each of the significance, purposes and forms of memorials and processes of memorialisation
  • Explore the context of contemporary spiritualities in relation to the significance, purposes and forms of memorials and processes of memorialisation
  • Explore the significance of personal meaning-making and its influence on the significance, purposes and forms of memorials and processes of memorialisation
  • Explore socio-economic and cultural variations and analyse how cultural scripts develop, operate and impact on individuals and societies
  • Analyse the dynamic of the public/private interface as it affects the mourning of individuals and influences public and community memorial events
  • Analyse the theme of permanence and impermanence, its implications for and in relation to, social and cultural context as well as the accommodation of death by individuals
  • Identify contemporary tensions, for example ambiguity and contested identities, their sources and impacts
  • Apply this new knowledge in the professional cultures of health and social care practice and death services, in order to enhance the quality of care provided to dying and bereaved families and individuals
  • Contribute to the raising of public awareness and education in a field with an increasingly high public profile, but one which is fraught with controversy

Finally, the study is located within the growing body of international research on the changing face of death in the 21st century, thickening the texture of that analysis, tracing the roots of contemporary debates and facilitating understanding of the broader social processes which shape our responses to death.

University of Hull Arts & Humanities Research Council

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