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Memorials: A relationship with those we have lost

Headstones in a war memorial cemetery

Academics are exploring how and why bereaved people memorialise their loved ones in a major multidisciplinary study. The research project aims to discover how memorials help people cope with grief and maintain relationships between the bereaved and their lost loved ones.

The research project, entitled Remember Me: The Changing Face of Memorialisation, will provide support guidelines to professionals and community groups which support the bereaved. The study has looked at a range of cultural and social issues around death and memorials, including grief and dementia, and how members of migrant communities, military heroes and transgender people are mourned, celebrated and memorialised.

Professor Margaret Holloway of the University of Hull says that memorialisation is an important bridge between coming to terms with loss and continuing life with a loved one’s legacy.

From the very earliest human societies, people have always felt a need to mark the death of their loved ones. Memorials come in all shapes and sizes, from elaborate ceremonies and grand marble headstones, to online commemorations on social media or personal mementos kept in a special box.

Now, academics are exploring how the bereaved remember their loved ones after they die, exploring the role of memorials in how we grieve and live after the death of a loved one.

Margaret Holloway, who is a professor of social sciences at the University of Hull, is part of the Remember Me project. It brings together researchers and academics from the fields of archaeology, arts and humanities, history, theology, photography and political science, to name but a few.

“Human beings have an ongoing need to memorialise, both as individuals and as communities,” explains Margaret, who has studied death, dying and bereavement for nearly 30 years. “They have a need to set up those places, spaces, objects and events by which they can, on an ongoing longer-term basis, remember and absorb the dead into the living.”

Stone burial cairn in dome shape A Neolithic burial cairn in Caithness, Scotland – an ancient memorial. Photo by David Shand via Wikimedia

Memorialisation and grief

Through her research into death and grief, Professor Holloway has concluded that the funeral service is only the beginning of the memorialisation process, which helps people adjust to life without a loved one.

“We think that memorialisation is an important part of grief theory,” says Margaret. “I think this aspect has not really been recognised in the ongoing grieving process, and that is important at all levels, for individuals and for society.

“When I just started in this field, teaching in the 1990s, there was this notion of stage theory – the stages of grief – with the last one being ‘letting go’.

“Then came the continuing bonds theory, which actually arose from work with bereaved parents. It became obvious that they can never let go of their loved ones.”

Some experts questioned whether the two theories could be compatible. The first suggests the bereaved can work through grief and come to accept their loss, and the other that says the bereaved have a continuing relationship with the person who has died. So how could people people ‘let go’ and yet hold on?

Memorialisation, Margaret argues, provides the link between these two theories of grief.

“Both sets of theories do resonate with what people experience. Memorialisation provides the way in which we mark the death and in that sense let go of the relationship,” she explains. “But it also allows us to start to develop the continuing relationship with them.”

In other words, memorials can allow the bereaved to both acknowledge that the person is gone and begin reconstructing a relationship with them by remembering and paying tribute to them.

Many bereaved people embark on this process without thinking about it. You may keep pictures of your loved one in a prominent place in your home, or visit their grave on a regular basis. This is memorialisation at work.

Memorialisation doesn’t have to be just about physical landmarks either.

“People say, ‘I am the person that I am because I had that relationship with them’. And in that sense, their loved one is still with them. That is also a form of memorialisation.

“The objects they use, the emotions and the behaviours that they engage in when they hold memorial services or commemorate the death – over time these are a really important way of maintaining this ongoing relationship.”

Box of family photos, a type of memorial

The case studies

The Remember Me project aims to be a comprehensive exploration of memorials. There are countless issues surrounding memorialisation, its place in society and the way it impacts the individual who is grieving.

“We have four contemporary case studies which we thought would show us particular cases where practices were changing,” Margaret explains.

“One of the case studies is called Heroes and Loved Ones, looking at military death. It looks at the importance, among other things, of Remembrance Sunday and other remembrance events.

“Another case study is about Polish migrants in Hull. It asks to what extent do they absorb the new culture, and to what extent do they hang on to rituals and traditions from their country of birth. How do they enrich and change the indigenous culture?

The project is also looking at how we remember loved ones who die with dementia, with predictions that around one million people in the UK will have been diagnosed with the disease by 2025.

“There’s a lot written about the celebration of life at contemporary funerals,” says Margaret. “But what are we saying if we only celebrate the life pre-dementia? Are we writing off that part of their life? Do we only want to remember them as they were before? That case study had a tremendous response.”

The fourth modern case study is based around transgender memorials. “There’s issues of contested identity there, which can be quite painful and difficult for birth families and new families and friends,” says Margaret.

Based on these four case studies, the Remember Me project will produce practice guides and educational resources to help social care workers, health practitioners and communities.

“There’ll be one on dementia practice, for example, about how can we build those memories,” says Margaret. “And there’ll be one for the transgender community.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the modern case studies are also enabling the archaeologists and historians on the project to interpret their work on older societies and their methods of memorialisation.

“We think these are all very contemporary issues, but they’re not,” Margaret says. Despite the methods of memorialisation changing, from long barrows to Facebook posts, it seems that many things remain constant when it comes to the way the dead are remembered.

The Remember Me conference

Next year, April 5-7, academics, researchers and practitioners will be sharing their findings at a special legacy event in Hull. There will be an exhibition open to members of the public as part of this, including a museum trail through the city of Hull, linking the project with existing exhibits.

The call for papers for the 2018 conference is now open, inviting researchers to propose a topic for the conference.

You can find out more about the project, and read articles from leading academics on the subject of memorialisation, on the Remember Me blog.

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