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How we remember our dead and what it says about us

How do the dead live? In the objects they once treasured? Or the places they lived and loved in?

Human beings have seemingly always searched for, and celebrated, those special objects or places that help them locate their grief. But what do the changing ways that we use to remember those we loved, tell us about the way society itself has changed?

“It’s fascinating what people chose to hold onto,” says Laura King, Associate Professor of Modern British History at Leeds University, who helped set up the Remembrance exhibition currently running at Abbey House Museum in Leeds, and who also co-leads on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Living With Dying research project.

Living With Dying focuses on changes that took place in the UK between 1900-1950, and specifically how big social changes - a decline in Victorian mortuary rituals, the mass killings of two world wars, along with the arrival of the NHS and better healthcare - shaped family life and the way society remembered those who died.

“There are no easy conclusions about why people chose particular ways of remembering,” says Dr King. “The major trend that takes place over the period I’m interested in is a general shift away from the more formal memorials of the Victorian era towards the more informal.”

Within this it is possible to establish several distinct ways in which people remember the dead, according to Dr King. While they are not exclusive and frequently overlap, they are:

  • Objects - Whether these are created specifically in order to remember or something incidental that becomes significant because of a death, things are special in processes of remembrance.
  • Places - The place of burial or the scattering of ashes could become a sacred place to remember, as could the home of a person who died. But again, the way in which people use places in their remembrance is broad. Favourite holiday destinations are a common example.
  • Practices and rituals - Often in conjunction with the above, I have found many examples of individuals and families doing something to remember those who have died.
  • Senses and emotions - When our deceased loved ones pop into our minds, we don’t always know why, and of course remembering doesn’t have to be tied to a particular object, place or act at all. But sometimes a feeling, a smell or a sound, and particularly music, can trigger thoughts about someone we’ve lost.

Dr King’s fascination with death and remembrance grew out of her research into family life. “I got quite interested in how families deal with death,” she says. “And the fellowship that I got from the AHRC was to enable me to really get to grips with this.

“As time went on I became more and more focused on memorials and how people remember the deceased. I started to think about the material culture of memory - which is where the exhibition comes in - but also how place and ritual come into it.”

One particularly interesting aspect of remembrance that has emerged is the difference between families who’ve lived in one place for years and years, and those who have moved around.

“One fascinating example was that of a woman who came to the UK from Estonia as a child during the Second World War,” says Dr King.

“Her family had to leave fast, and she talks about how her grandmother previous to this moment had ‘talked’ to her deceased husband and had very strong sense that he was with her, just out of site.

“So, when they packed to leave, the woman’s mother was focused on gathering up practical, valuable stuff: things they needed or could sell. While her grandmother just focused on bundling up items that reminded her of her husband, such as his prayer shawl, so she could take his ‘spirit’, as she called it, with her. They ended up having a huge row!”

Those who have stayed in one place often focus on spaces like cemeteries - but also places that were significant, happy places, such as beaches.

“One man told us about how his father had always got cheap tickets to see concerts, and always sat in the same seat,” says Dr King. “After his father died, this man would try to go to the same concert hall and sit in the same seat as an act of remembrance.”  

For an academic, death is a perfect topic for public engagement as it is a universal experience, and in addition to the museum exhibition, Dr King has also been working with the artist Ellie Harrison, and has just been granted some AHRC Follow-on Funding to further develop this relationship.

“People actually seem to really enjoy talking about death,” says Dr King. “Which is great, because we have also been working with Leeds City Council on a project to get people discussing death and dying more, because it is so relevant to so many areas, from legal stuff like wills, to the NHS and social care.

“There’s a lot to think about - and we need to be thinking about it all.”

Header image copyright: The Leeds General Cemetery, University of Leeds 

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