The Arts of Consolation: Commemoration and Folkways of Faith

By Eisenhandler, Susan A. | Generations, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Arts of Consolation: Commemoration and Folkways of Faith


Eisenhandler, Susan A., Generations


Consolation brings an understanding of suffering and loss that reorients a grieving person to the continuous flow of life. Commemoration can be an important aspect of consolation and is expressed in a number of ways in many cultures. This article examines the commemoration practices, or "folkways of faith," of a group of older adults who were interviewed about their practices and beliefs.

SOCIAL ASPECTS OF COMMEMORATION

Commemoration of others who have passed away from human life has long been understood in Western social and religious traditions as appropriately expressed in private and public settings (Kastenbaum, 2000). Memories are often expressed in specific public sites such as cemeteries, gardens, and sometimes entire buildings or complexes-along with material objects like statues, sculptural forms, and other works of art, and expected interactions such as liturgies and memorial services. The resting places of bodies, most compellingly seen in cemeteries and in battlefields from Gettysburg to Normandy, are additional examples of socially defined spaces that symbolically capture and memorialize the complicated events, stories, and lives of individuals and nations. These sites become repositories for remembrance. Though they are ever-present as reminders, the sites also evoke memories on specific anniversaries, at particular times that mark a passage of time away from an event. Unlike the recent penchant for naming buildings or parts of buildings with the intent of marking a person's or family's generosity to a particular organization, memorials of larger events and the process of commemorating outers in quiet or private ways inevitably stir and induce sentiment and remembrance that imparts more than a plaque can convey. Places and objects are meant to evoke a rich panoply of memories among the living, particularly those who shared the lived experience of the departed, and also among those who were distant or removed from the experience.

We speak of "stirring memories." Auschwitz, for example, offers inspiration and hope at the same time that it reminds us of the unremitting hatred and murder directed toward Jews. In an important way, Auschwitz and the sites of other death camps commemorate, with an inescapable directness that cannot be found elsewhere in places like museums, the spirit of innocent people killed.

Perhaps the most effective memorials and commemorative places are those that instill an idea best expressed in Shakespeare's words that the past is prologue. Capturing or distilling the spirit of an era in order to evoke memory and consolation is a delicate task. Imagine, for a moment, a granddaughter and grandmother hooked into headsets, swaying in private yet within a starkly public setting to the guitar rhythms of Jimi Hendrix in a corridor of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The music, the album covers, and the black and white photographs of a four-year-old boy who would later mesmerize audiences with his electric guitar all re-create some range of meaning and memory for the grandmother. But what does the granddaughter take away? The memory that takes shape for her begins with a smile as she watches her grandmother sway and listen to the sound of some part of a past that is as ancient as Troy to the granddaughter. Their happiness becomes part of meaning, and it is not, except in the most general sense, a shared meaning, nor can it ever be.

A social purpose of disparate collected memories that are captured in places and objects and housed in museums is to honor and to teach simultaneously. If it ever was the case, the scrapbooks of commemoration no longer are exclusively bound to one particular medium or to a single generation. And yet the kind of memorial erected or created is inextricably linked to a specific moment of time that will be reinterpreted within and across generations.

Within the broadly defined conceptual space of memory described above, individuals understand and respond to the passage of personal and social time, in part, by creating mementos that spark recall and recollection of the meaning of particular people and social interaction in a specific moment. …

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