Commemorating the dead outside the cemetery in the British urban and rural landscape is now a widespread practice. There is a long tradition of cenotaphic commemoration on hill-tops and holy sites. Moreover, this has been facilitated by the 20th-century rise of cremation that allows two stages of fragmentation for the body – burning and crushing – the corporeal remains of the dead can be readily transported, scattered and interred away from cemeteries. With or without formal permission, one can locate ashes at a range beauty spots including ancient and historic monuments, parks and gardens. In this way, the dead can be conjoined with sites of close affinity to the deceased and/or of shared affinity by the deceased and mourners. Multiple locales might be selected for any individual since ‘cremains’ or ‘ashes’ are partible. In the absence of the physical remains of the dead, small plaques can be augmented to many features and buildings.
Whether ashes are present or absent, the landscape is a rich medium of memorialisation through cenotaphs, including benches.
I regularly encounter memorial benches, some associated with floral offerings and evidence of ash-scatterings when visiting heritage sites. In most cases, the messages are secular and about the relationship between the dead, the mourners and sometimes messages aimed at the visitor to enjoy the view, the place and the experiences enjoyed by both mourners and the dead. I have previously discussed their secular and spiritual dimensions, but rarely is it possible to identify specific religious connotations to the relationship between memorial and place.
So as discussed here in regard to benches and the gaze of the living visitor and the imagined gaze of the spirit of the dead person(s), the choice of memorial location need not be tied to any specific afterlife destination or religious faith. Such practices are embraced by some Christians and aetheists. I suspect they are not specific to faith and are more about aesthetics and affinity to place. Such landscape locations are mutable and can be afforded many individualistic associations, including articulating relationships between the living mourners and the remembered dead person’s walks and favourite places. As such, the locations of memorials, on benches, trees and the like – can be connected with vistas over natural and ancient landscapes from specific locales.
Recently, however, when visiting Wales’s largest prehistoric mound, the Gop cairn, I noticed close by monuments that are unambiguously connected to both secular and pagan religious ideas in close association.
Situated so as to affords dramatic views over the Welsh landscape, looking towards Snowdonia, and close to both the Neolithic Gop Cairn and another prehistoric burial mound, was a rather typical memorial bench. Beside it is a small arrangement of potted plant and inscribed stone with initials, perhaps commemorating a second individual or perhaps the person to whom the bench is commemorating.
Pagan Shrine or Memorial?
In addition, close to the bench is a second structure. Rarely from my experience, it held indications of specific pagan and ancient ideas revealed through its form and artefacts. The choice of memorial form is interesting and might constitute a miniature attempt to connect to ancient monumental forms: a small stone cairn.
Furthermore, on top of the monument was the most revealing dimension that sheds light on a pagan affinity for the commemorated individual: a representation of the Norse goddess of love and death: Freyja. Meanwhile, fronting the cairn is a further stone with a small plaque in red letters (perhaps evoking the traditional colour that Scandinavian rune-stones are painted in) ‘Freyja Vanadis’ (Freyja, daughter of the Vanir).
So is this a shrine to the goddess or a memorial to someone who rather egotistically adopted the goddess as a pseudonym? Obviously an idiosyncratic structure, what struck me was how its location is now conventional in memorial terms: its association with ancient monuments and vistas is commonplace for both benches and ash-scattering sites.
Whether shrine or memorial, why here? The Gop Cairn has folklore linked to the death of Boudicca (utterly unbelievable), but there is no real Viking connection to my knowledge. Of course this area received Hiberno-Norse influence and/or settlement in the 10th century, but I’m not aware of any link to the Gop Cairn in the existing literature. Was the close association with the Hiberno-Norse-influenced nearby cross at Maen Achwyfan significant in regard to the modern perception of a Norse nature of the Gop Cairn and this hilltop location?
Doesn’t this simply go to show that people can make their own associations with space that needn’t be embedded in place. It also goes to show that you can never predict what you are going to find when you explore memorials in the British landscape these days!