Public grief

A bench dedicated to a dead grandparent

I was walking around a little dam near my home and I saw that some new benches had been constructed in honour of deceased grandparents.  Having recently lost one of my grandparents and not having had the urge to construct a bench for them, I wondered why one would do so. Why do we build monuments to honour the dead? It isn’t for the dead. It’s for ourselves, of course, but it’s also for others.

Here are some possible reasons (some are positive, some are negative)

  1. We want to assuage our guilt (this one is a bit cynical, I know)
  2. We want people to know we cared (about our dead loved one) – self-gratification
  3. We want to spread the deceased’s ideals (think about hospitals, charities, trusts, erected in honour of certain people)
  4. We want them to become important to others – we impose the memory of this person on other people and with every person that is touched by it or just notices it, our loved one gains importance, an importance we feel is deserved
  5. We want their death to have meaning, to make some kind of difference
  6. We want to honour their last wishes (perhaps they wanted to have bench erected in their memory)
  7. We inform people they should appreciate their loved ones while they still can – we remind them of the inevitability and finality of death.
  8. We want to say something about the manner of their death, which should never be repeated (think of the holocaust and 9/11)
  9. It is not enough to feel our grief. We feel we need to do something with it, we need to act, we need to give it an outward expression. It is perhaps only a by-product of this that the grief becomes public and shared in some measure with the world.

One cannot walk past a bench or a monument dedicated to someone no longer living and not be moved in some way. I wonder if we’re more willing to listen to the dead than the living. We listen when it’s too late, when there is the most to regret and we realise what we’ve taken for granted. The living are less interesting because they can still fail us and there are still ample opportunities to listen, to make right. We build monuments to the dead, because we wish to hear them speak once more. We give them a stone substitute for a voice and we can’t help but listen.

A little plaque on a park bench
is your voice now
touching strangers
who sit and listen to the cold letters
they can’t help but listen
to the dead
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