I’ve previously posted about memorials to entertainers and comedians, including Spike Milligan’s ‘komodiataph’ at Blackpool. However, this is the first time I’ve actually come across the grave of a famous comedian.
I was on the Isle of Man for the second time this year in my role as a link tutor between the Dept of History and Archaeology and the University College Isle of Man. After completing my official duties, I spent a day exploring churches and churchyards on the north of the island. As with my visits around England, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark in recent years, I try to look at the entire mortuary environment, not just the early medieval stones that are my natural focus of interest. In doing so, sitting among the most recent memorials within a churchyard extension, I came across the grave of comedian and actor Sir Norman Wisdom OBE.
This elicited a strange response in me. First, it was a surprise and a shock to meet a person I ‘knew’ and whose grave I wasn’t looking for. Second, it was unexpected because the name of the deceased is often the last thing I notice, given that my interest is in the form, ornamentation, materials and spatial arrangement of gravestones, not the names of those commemorated.
There was a third reason why it was a surprise. I only knew/know Norman from his films, but also I even saw in panto one year as a kid… I’ve little time for celebrities and so this response was a surprise in itself. The effect of celebrity status and false-familiarity is well rehearsed, and yet here I was experiencing it unexpectedly and in a mortuary environment.
So here lies the great Sir Norman. Famous throughout the English-speaking world, but also and especially Albania. Beyond my shock at chancing upon a familiar and famous name, there are dimensions to this memorial that speak directly to my research regarding common trends in late 20th/early 21st-century mortuary commemoration in churchyards, and the role of portable material culture in signifying individual identities upon and around gravestones.
The back-to-back with another (wider) memorial, thus facilitating the easy management of graves, the dark-grey, standard-sized grave fits with the style and regulations of the churchyard. Yet within this established formula, the text and image gives a specific identity for the commemorated individual.
‘Remembered With a Laugh’ has a clear double entendre refering to his humour and his distinctive laugh. The laughs are of the deceased and of those who remember him. Laughing is both the subject and the medium of remembrance.
This is a personal grave to a public individual: ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’ is widely used and familiar phrase to articulate the relationship between the loved one and those that knew him personally. Yet in this context, it is most assuredly appropriate in a public sense.
Yet beyond the text, it is material culture that defines the individual. There is a representation of a peaked cloth cap – the distinctive attribute that defined some of Norman’s many screen and stage performances. Unsurprising, as well as a simple potted plant, a cloth cap near-identical to that depicted sits to the right of the memorial, whether placed by family or fans.
The idiosyncrasy of the grave is defined by a personal artefact. Now we can all read the significance of this item of clothing because it is part of the individuals’ public persona. However, this tells us about how so many other artefacts are utilised on other graves, messages that might be familiar to the family and friends, but almost impossible to read for the casual visitor…
So the lesson is to demonstrate how profoundly and centrally personal items perform key roles in modern mortuary commemoration, both through their depiction and/or their placement.