9.2 Memorials & Memorialization

Honouring the Dead

Humans have honoured their dead in a variety of ways over time (Powell, 2018). We mark death often through memorials, with urban landscapes containing a variety of commemorative objects. Some memorials are for individual loved ones. Others are more public in nature, commemorating people and events who are defined as important (e.g., statues, naming of buildings) and/or larger groups of people who died either together or from a common cause (e.g., war, genocide, violence, terrorism, disease, natural disasters, mass causality events, etc.). At their most basic level, memorials to loved ones serve to remind us of the person(s) we have lost, the frailty of life, and/or the inevitability of death. Larger public memorials play a broader range of roles including: honouring, commemorating, and remembering the dead; aiding the understanding significant human events; the construction of official and counter narratives; creating symbolic representations; and stimulating dialogue (Clark, 2013; Cudny & Appelblad, 2019).

The Birth of Modern-Day Memorials

The birth of modern-day forms of memorial and commemoration began after 1918 (Powell, 2018). Most of the WWI memorials constructed in the years between the two world wars relied on more traditional modes of representation and symbolism. They borrowed heavily from ancient Greece and Rome, and spoke to the conservative orientation of the time (Manitoba, n.d.). Many of the monuments created are statuesque in nature, often depicting a male person or persons atop a pedestal. These strongly gendered, conservative expressions of public remembrance are attempts “to set our understanding of what has happened in stone, beyond interpretation, investigation and critique” (Younge, 2021, para 1; Mitchell, 2003). The nature and form of these historical monuments, including who is depicting and who is not, is intended to “to secure narratives of nation-building” patriotism, and white, male/patriarchal power (Murphy 2021, p.1147; Mitchell, 2003).

Contested Memory

Public monuments and memorials can be powerfully symbolic. Having a white, rich, man memorialized in metal or stone, set on a pedestal in a central public space “makes a deliberate, eminently visible claim about to whom the space belongs, and thus who belongs here and who does not” (Murphy, 2021, p.1149). Efforts to write the past in stone, however, are destined to provoke controversy, hostility or fade into irrelevancy (Benjamin, June 24, 2020). Since history is a social construct (Kasabavo, 2008), who, what, and in what format someone or something is memorialized is subject to re-evaluation, re-examination, reinterpretation, and debate (Lewis & Fraser, 1996). The meaning attributed to more static older monuments and memorials, and the historical people and events they represent, is therefore open to contestation, something we have increasingly bore witness to since the mid-1960s (Benjamin, June 24, 2020). In recent years, there have been numerous headlines about the defacing and destruction (Bruggeman, 2020) of regional and national monuments (e.g., Lurie, September, 8, 2020) and the call for the removal of statues (e.g., Smith, October 17, 2021) that were erected to honour people and/or events whose celebrity was built on colonization and/or the crushing of racialized and Indigenous peoples and their cultures (Grovier, June 12, 2020, para 7). The hotly contested nature of the politics of memory is not new. The basis of the contestation is “not just what monuments are, but more importantly, what monuments are intended to do for and within the body politic” (Murphy, 2021, p.1144).

Contemporary Memorials and Counter Narratives

Memorials rarely reflect consensus and are never silent (Bruggeman ,2020). In most contemporary memorials we witness a shift away from traditional motifs toward memorials and monuments that are more abstract in their design (Kerby, et al., 2021). As noted by Kerby (2021, p.7), “abstraction is better placed to challenge hegemonic views of the past…and…with the complexity of historical events.” This purposeful alteration in memorial style is meant to change the relationship between the memorial and the audience. Rather than instructing audiences as to what to think, feel, and remember, contemporary memorials and monuments are typically designed to embrace ambiguity and resist closure, thereby encouraging viewers to actively engage in reflection and interpretation (Kerby et al., 2021). Many contemporary memorials not only engage with the viewer, they also symbolically and metaphorically challenge or counter existing relations of power and official narratives regarding what and who should be memorialized (Lewis & Fraser, 1996), demanding inclusivity in collective memory (Bruggeman, 2020). In doing so, such efforts by special interest and grassroots groups serve to initiate dialogue, and in the process engage the viewer as an active participant in the reconstruction of public memory (Kerby, 2021; Lewis & Fraser, 1996).


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On Death and Dying (Original) Copyright © 2022 by Jacqueline Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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