Every November, the Queen stands before 120 tones of chiseled Portland stone on London’s Whitehall and the nation collectively intones, “We will remember them.” A century after the erection of the Cenotaph, the ways of civic remembrance developed in the aftermath of the First World War continue to format our public understanding of how to remember the dead.
It is a year today since the first recorded death from Covid in the UK took place at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Many thousands have died since then. How shall we publicly remember them? Over on the St Paul’s Cathedral website, the Prince of Wales now fronts a virtual Book of Remembrance for the victims of Covid-19. “Remember me,” it is called. And there are now many other websites just like it.
The contrasting grammar is not inconsequential. A century ago, it was “we will remember them”; today it is “remember me”. Back then, an anonymous “unknown warrior” was interred at Westminster Abbey, one nameless death representing the deaths of many; today it is the singularity of each individual death that is recorded. Then, a collective act of remembrance for a heroic collective effort. Today, the anguished cry of an individual for recognition. In so many areas of life, we are a culture that, over the last century, has reshaped our moral consciousness from the “we” to the “I”. And as in life, so too in death.
Despite the fact that it is now the NHS, not the military, that carries much of the weight of our collective national pride, it is still hard to imagine that we have anything like the same the cultural wherewithal to remember publicly those who have died in hospital wards, victims of Covid. Hard to imagine, perhaps, because memorialisation requires a sense that the self is absorbed into something greater than itself, some bearer of continuity – God, or even a sense of national collective effort – neither of which have quite the same purchase on our collective imaginations.
We have never been particularly good at remembering those who succumb to disease. Over twice as many people perished of Spanish flu as died in the First World War. Yet while many thousands of memorials are scattered across country and continents for those lost in battle, we have no equivalent for those who coughed and spluttered to death in their beds.
Are we about to repeat this forgetfulness? Digital memorials aren’t the same as stone ones. Virtual memorials are not a part of a cultural commons like the village war memorial; they don’t have the same presence in our everyday lives. All those digital ones and zeroes, bitcoin souls, have an uncertain connection to either time or place. But, then, the way we deal with death has changed over the generations.
Previously, it was the eventual absorption into the divine life that constituted the essence of our hope of life after death. God alone is immortal and so it is only through some sort of participation in the divine life that we could partake in that eternity. But what contiually astonishes me today — and I deal with the dead and the mourning on a daily basis — is how many people think that belief in God is superstitious nonsense, yet also think the idea of life-after-death is perfectly reasonable. That paradox doesn’t disturb them. They think that human beings contain within themselves the metaphysical resources to sustain themselves after death.
Perhaps one of the consequences of that shift away from God is that many are keen to personalise their memorials in ways that would have been unimaginable before – at least, unimaginable to all but the very wealthiest and most powerful. There is a heart-breaking argument currently going on in a Leeds graveyard where a mother has been told by the Diocesan authorities that she is not able to personalise the graves of her children with photographs and a collection of their teddies and toys.
This woman has my every sympathy, and there is indeed something heartless sounding about the Diocesan response. But it is also true that the aesthetics of graveyards once represented a sense of collective experience, where the modesty and uniformity of the stone spoke to a sense of the details of human life dropping away as one is absorbed into the infinite love of God, and into the earth. And the calmness of the space seemed to underpin a lack of anxiety about all this. That is why there is something gently re-assuring about church graveyards.
By contrast, a collection of children’s toys represents — more than anything else one can imagine — the immediacy of trauma and pain. So should a headstone express the personality of the deceased, their individuality, or is this the point at which individuality is relinquished into something larger? Emotionally, I am with the mother. Intellectually, I am with the Diocese.
Because what this case represents is whether a memorial should primarily be all about those who are grieving their loss, or whether it is the site of passage from this word into — as Christians might put it — the loving arms of God. To express this at its starkest: are graveyards about the living or the dead? The fact that many people now believe that funerals and gravestones are for the living, not the dead, echoes that shift in our way of thinking about death itself.
My feeling is that – however much we may protest at this – we no longer have the cultural or theological resources to memorialise those who have died of Covid beyond the human memories of those who have loved them. If anything, we are even less able to imagine what a lasting memorial might look like than we were in the aftermath of the Spanish flu.
Atheists, of course, will insist that this has always been the case. And, of course, if they are right about God, then they are right about this too. If there is no God then — unless we are Wellington or Nelson, both of whom have grand tombs at St Paul’s — the impression we make upon this planet will not be sustained for more than a few generations after we become food for daffodils.
Modern memorialisation seems to accept this basic understanding of things. And so, in 50 years’ time, when we search for St Paul’s virtual Book of Remembrance, the Google result will probably read “Website not found” — the contemporary equivalent of “they fly, forgotten as a dream”. For without the kind of metaphysical scaffolding we have all but abandoned, only oblivion awaits for those of who us who one day will pass from mind.