Sunday, 11 November 2018

In the midst of memorials

If it is true to say: 
"In the midst of life we are in death". 
In parks we are in the midst of memorials

I wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. Rather than go to one of the official services I decided to go to a nearby memorial "The Stairway to Heaven". This memorial is to the 178 people who died in a crowd crush in 1943 during a false air-raid alert. It is a short walk from my flat, along a busy high street, just tucked in the corner of a quiet park, near to the Bethnal Green tube station, where the accident occurred.

I nearly cried as I read the account of a mother trying to make a cage with her arms to protect her young son. She must have failed as his name was on the memorial, aged 2 years, 9 months.

I sat down on a nearby bench. I watched the falling yellow Hornbeam leaves, flights of pigeons scattering through the trees, a tourist photographing a mendicant squirrel, an old man, pausing at the memorial, holding his baseball cap over his heart, and smelt incense from a church parade going to an outdoor memorial service.

And I thought of all the horrendous, painful deaths so many suffer as a consequence of war. The submariners in their steel coffins as the cold waters burst in. Of the tank crews trapped and burning inside their armoured shells of steel. Of the air-crews thrown to the sides of their spinning planes, watching the ground approach.

After a while I decided to walk around the park replacing thoughts of war and death with the sights and smells of the rose gardens and closely clipped lawns of an urban park. I came across a red marble fountain, heavily and ornately sculpted. It was dedicated to two people who had died trying to save others in a fire, in 1904. Further on was a 2004 memorial to two firemen who died in a fire nearby. Along the perimeter path were several benches, each memorialising a loved one.

What is this desire to memorialise our dead? Do we want to mark our losses in public? Do we anchor the emptiness of loss with a solid, hard and permanent object? Why are so many benches dedicated to loss? And I thought of my bench. I bought and sited it for others to use, to sit and ponder and to enjoy.

Would it be better to furnish our parks with memorials to joyful events, to celebrate the happy milestones of life: christenings, or weddings. Should we ask passersby to share in our joy and celebrate life?

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