Remembering the dead – stories from the last centuryby Dr Laura King
The things we keep and places that become special when someone dies have a sense of permanence: objects last longer than we do, and whilst places may change, they remain thereforever. This can provide some comfort – everyone dies eventually, but our and our loved ones’ memories can live on. Whether a gravestone or the site of scattered ashes, or a favourite pub or a street where someone lived, anchoring our memories of someone who has died in a sense of place is a useful to us.
Families have long used places to remember their dead. Ted Walker, for example, remembered visiting his sister’s grave – she had died as a baby when Ted was four. Without understanding why, Ted remembered ‘on fine afternoons, my mother would take me the three miles, in my push-chair, to the cemetery in North Lancing. There she would clip the grass round the tiny grave, plant bulbs, arrange cut flowers in a jar which I was allowed to fill from the large, brass, fast-gushing tap by the gate’.
For others, it’s a place loved by the relative who has died, somewhere that reflects them as a person. Brian Magee wrote of his father’s love of music, and his regular purchase of subscription tickets for Monday evening concerts in interwar London. Brian, after his father’s death in 1947, would choose to sit in his father’s regular seat when he went to concerts at Covent Garden.
When families move, it can be difficult to keep someone’s memory alive – because of moving from the place that person lived. When Molly Hughes built a house in the 1920s, near Potters Bar, she designed it to accommodate big pieces of furniture her and her late husband had bought together. She hoped to ‘breathe the spirit of his old home in Wales’ into this newly built house, in an attempt to make a new home feel like her husband’s as well as her own.
For families forced to move, this was even more difficult. Elin Toona Gottschalk, a refugee of the Second World War, had to flee her home in Estonia with her mother and grandmother in 1944. Her grandmother remembered her deceased husband Erni, a poet, by visiting places in their hometown of Haapsalu to talk to him. When fleeing, Elin’s mother packed valuable items, things they could sell or barter. Her grandmother wrapped as many of Erni’s things as she could into a bundle which she clutched to her chest and wouldn’t let go, insisting that ‘her husband’s spirit was coming with us, or else she, too, would stay behind’. After years as refugees in Germany, the family came to Leeds – and dear Erni’s bundle and spirit came too.
A historian of everyday life and emotional relationships, I currently research the way we remember those who have died. Part of this research has involved collaboration with the Grief Series on Part 6 (Journey With Absent Friends), which beautifully brings into focus the way we use places to remember. What’s more, the meals that have accompanied this project have been in part inspired by historical examples of people’s use of food in remembrance – memories of the plum pies a grandmother made, or the ritual of making elderflower champagne each year to keep an aunt’s memory alive. In an innovative partnership, supporting by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, ideas and stories from this historical research project have shaped the caravan and its tour. This has involved working with Ellie to find stories in the archives on a particular theme, visiting archives with Ellie and Hayley Mills-Styles, interviewing participants, and many, many chats about the questions and ideas we shared. There’s a real opportunity here, for social historians who are interested in the lives and stories of people, to work with artists focusing on participation and interaction. For me, it’s been wonderfully valuable in all sorts of ways – and great fun.
For more on this research, please visit the website.