Today was the Subject Assessment Board and final departmental meeting of the academic year. External examiners have come and gone, our year’s work applauded and cake laced with whiskey has been shared. We also celebrated the imminent marriage of one of our colleagues. This evening, those not otherwise occupied are out enjoying the departmental end-of-term meal. A very hard year of academic work comes to an end and that deserved celebrating.
Sounds like a good year doesn’t it? Well no. Not for me. As an academic, it has been the worst and for a single event has made it so, overshadowing all the success, the achievements and the personal joys of the last 9 months. Of course, by now I should be creating a positive narrative around this academic year, especially as someone well-versed in rituals and processes of grieving. But I simply can’t and won’t. It has been horrible, tragic and upsetting and here’s why.
My friend and colleague Dr John Doran passed away at the end of October aged 47. We had little warning and it was a huge shock. None of my academic reading and personal experiences of death equipped me to negotiate the complexities of responding to, and mourning the death of a work colleague as well liked and well respected as John. I have not moved on from the initial news and still remain numbed by the news. And to be honest again, I still expect to see John around the department. There is a John-shaped gap in our professional lives from the passing conversations in the corridor to sharing weary meetings.
From informing colleagues and students, communicating with John’s family, through to making arrangements for the commemoration of his memory and legacy, my departmental head has applied his typical deft professionalism and tact to a complex and sensitive task. Indeed, the entire department – staff and students – as well as the University as a whole, have responded with sensitivity, professionalism and respect to the sad news of John’s death. Following John’s funeral at which many colleagues attended, there was a packed memorial service in the University Chapel attended by the staff and students of the department but also staff and students from across the institution. John’s family were there, including his wife and three girls. A generous memorial scholarship has been set up in John’s name.
What has been striking for me – from the perspective of an archaeologist – is how material culture and space have been key to how John has been commemorated formally through ritual but also through the practical managing and redistribution of things. I don’t wish to talk about how his family have done this; that would not be appropriate. But I do feel it is important to comment on how this has happened at his workplace.
For over five years, John has been outside my door. In the Bluecoat Building, he was next door from Feb 2008 to the summer of 2010. In the Binks Building to which the Department moved that summer, he was across the corridor until last October. Most days, John would be there, quietly at work or chatting in the corridor.
Dealing with the sudden absence of John in the Department has been a protracted process in which material things and physical spaces have been implicated in the selective and careful remembering and forgetting of aspects of John’s identity as a member of the Department. From November 2012 to the present, he has been slowly redistributed from his office to other spaces and places. His image, name and his possessions have been redistributed, taken away from sight not to obscure his memory in a disrespectful way, but as part of a process of both coming to terms and practical reallocation. Yet what has remained longest is his office. It was quickly emptied of John’s possessions soon after his death: his family wanted the door-name. For much of this academic year therefore, it has remained respectfully unoccupied until the last couple of weeks when we have had to shift around offices to make way for John’s replacement who is arriving in September.
Therefore, John’s office was the last trace of him to go, a present absence, his memory invoked by empty space: no name on the door, no books on the shelf, no John sitting reading essays or writing at his computer. John’s material presence may have been now finally redistributed. We may not have a physical memorial to John. But his distributed self is itself a presence in the workplace rather than an absence. I do not share John’s faith, but for these reasons, it does feel that John is still with us. His image, name and stuff are all gone, but he remains in a variety of half-concealed guises. We miss you John.