Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Death and Grief in the Landscape: Private Memorials in Public Space

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Death and Grief in the Landscape: Private Memorials in Public Space

Article excerpt

Unpredictable encounters with roadside memorials, or memorial decorations from the living world, like toys, photographs, or personal items, may function as catalysts in revealing the ever-present powers of death and turning the space of ordinary life upside down by exposing its temporariness and fragility.1

The place and space of death is highly managed and regulated in modern society, creating the taken-for-granted attitude that death will be largely absent and invisible in most everyday environments. The modern subject of affluent, safe social and political geographies (which may not be an entire nation-state but a suburb or other partial locality) is shielded from real life death scenes such that death by heart attack in a shopping mall or supermarket is a disturbance of the social order and the everyday backgrounding of mortality consciousness. The boundary between life and death is spatially and symbolically breached with such events, particularly when violent death ruptures the social imaginary of safety zones-homes, shopping malls, cafes-any number of places and spaces. While real life death is socially, politically and culturally ordered and regulated in modernity, fictional or representational death remains relatively unbounded and unregulated in terms of accessibility and visibility.

This essay discusses private, informal memorialisation practices that mark scenes and sites of death in public spaces and places. It focuses on changing practices of public visibilities of death and grief-practices that render visible in a semiotic way what would otherwise be invisible or relatively unknown occurrences of death. By marking the landscape with signs of death and grief, roadside memorials and other types of informal public memorials bring to consciousness and signification spaces and places that might otherwise be perceived as death neutral or untouched by death. Various examples of non-official or non-state generated memorials (roadside memorials, house memorials, beach memorials) will be used to generate a discussion about the nature of private memorialisation practices in public culture and space. The meaning of public in this essay inevitably shifts with context, referring, at times, to places and spaces outside the legal demarcation and protection of private property. Public can also refer to places and spaces (both physical and virtual) that are regulated by governments and are relatively open to access and use by local, national and/or global citizens.

Research on memorial culture suggests a growing trend in late modernity to more personalised and individualised modes of commemoration in public and private physical space as well as virtual space.2 For example, Sloane documents shifts in American public memorial culture to more personalised forms of remembrance produced through artefacts such as quilts and interactive design spaces that enable people to leave messages, objects or other materials.3 Sloane also documents changing cemetery cultures that reject standardised headstones in favour of personalised identity imagery etched by laser technology.4 The way people increasingly use object placement to individualise cemetery space not designed for such practices (lawn cemeteries, for example) has become a source of conflict between individuals or families and government regulatory authorities. Furthermore, spontaneous memorials at sites of violence and fatal accidents are now commonplace because of the immediacy of mass media communications. Within minutes, citizens affected by a locally occurring death-event can alert others and visit physical and/or virtual sites to pay respect with messages, flowers and other artefacts. Pedestrian deaths, deaths from house fires, deaths on building sites, murders: all manner of deaths are increasingly acknowledged by spontaneous memorials which are often the public action of strangers.5 Less temporally and spatially transient memorials are usually the grief work of family and friends. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.