Representing the Absent: A Study of Memorialisation and Its Material Culture in Spontaneous and Official Memorial Places in Contemporary Sweden

University dissertation from E-husets tryckeri, Lunds universitet

Abstract: The general aim of this thesis was to study how memorial places and objects serve as links and meeting points between the bereaved and their conceptions and memories of the departed. This has been examined in several different ways, from various viewpoints, and placed in different contexts and periods in time. The general result is that there are several and complementary ways through which material links appear as parts of memorialisation processes. Places can serve as links and meeting points between the bereaved and their conceptions and memories of the departed by associating to the deceased’s social or private life, such as a favourite restaurant or the home. They can also function by associating to the deceased as dead, such as the burial site in the cemetery, where the dead body is laid to rest, or the site of an unexpected or violent fatality, reminding the bereaved of the fatal accident and the loss of the deceased’s life. In the same way, material objects reminiscent of the deceased as alive, such as a cherished teddy bear or a piece of jewellery, and objects found at the fatal accident site, such as splinters of glass from the crashed car and pebbles or leaves collected there, can serve as material tokens with a special connection to the deceased and function as links between the bereaved and their conceptions and memories of the departed. The thesis contributes to a discussion of the narrative and communicative possibilities of different memorial places and objects as well as their various functions as ritual and symbolic tools in the process of grief and remembrance. Of special interest is how the very physical appearance and placing of a spontaneous memorial can be seen to materialise and locate feelings of grief and loss. For some people, repeated visits to the site of a fatality can be a way of confronting, controlling and taming terrible thoughts of the accident. For others, the sight of a roadside memorial, for example, placed in close proximity to their everyday lives, can lead to unwanted thoughts of death and expose the fragility of life. A roadside memorial on the site of a fatal traffic accident can be perceived by the bereaved and by passing motorists as a manifestation of the dangerous condition of that particular roadway or the threat of careless driving, and thereby also serve as a powerful statement to the road commission and to drivers. In the same way, a spontaneous memorial on the site of a murder can be seen as a material and visual protest against the increasing violence in society. Another important issue is how memorial places, whether the gravesite, a spontaneous memorial or an official monument, serve as sites where we can physically encounter thoughts of the past and the departed as well as continue to care for the deceased by leaving gifts, fresh flowers and lighted candles. Memorial places and objects bring the material world of the here and now into juxtaposition with the transient world of memories of the past. By bridging to the past to support the generation of present memories, memorial places and objects also aid the construction of memories in the future. Recognising the profound role this material culture plays in people’s memories and grieving can be an important asset to the design community. This thesis shows the importance of acknowledging and respecting the need the bereaved may have to see the site of a tragedy, to leave flowers or candles there and to return repeatedly. These and other insights generated by the thesis could be further developed for use in planning and designing gravesites, memorial places and monuments. It calls attention to the phenomenon of spontaneous and informal activities in a city, and illuminates their importance and power – insights that could be used in the planning and design of the urban environment more generally.

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