Recently, I stopped by at our local McDonald’s restaurant for breakfast with some of my kids. I noticed that a pair of memorial benches have relatively recently been added beside the car park.
One bench memorialises a 71-year old man: ‘very much missed by family & friends’.
The other bench’s memorial commemorates someone who died at a far younger age: Christopher ‘Kris’ McDowell. This is in memory of a young man of Cefn Mawr, Wrexham, who died in the early hours of 31 May 2016 aged 18 years. Kris was crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct – a famous industrial World Heritage Site – when he fell 120 feet to his death. He had been on his way home from his work place at the Chirk McDonald’s with friends. The media reports include quotes from friends and family praising him and expressing their loss at the untimely death of Kris. The funeral in St John’s Church, Rhosymedre, attracted hundreds ahead of committal at Pentrebychan Crematorium. Subsequently, a memorial fund raised over £1,500 to pay for a memorial bench for Kris, as well as to support dyslexia and learning difficulties charities.
There are five reasons for posting about this, beyond noting with sadness the obvious tragedy this bench and its plaque memorialise.
First, deaths at World Heritage Sites, and other ancient monuments, are a varied but distinctive category of misfortune and deserve further reflection upon by heritage professionals and bodies. It is ‘no accident’ that this event took place at Pontcysyllte aqueduct: previously there have been deaths at this location reflecting the beautiful yet dangerous narrow foot crossing over the Dee valley taken by Telford’s canal. Heritage can be perilous and this tragic incident reveals a wider pattern often deliberately brushed under the carpet by the heritage and tourist industry keen to focus upon attracting people to these locations. For locals and visitors, complex, old and precipitous heritage locations are never safe havens.
Second, the network of places connected to this young man’s death, including his workplace at a fast food restaurant, a long route home without coherent lit footpaths, and a small working class town in Wrexham borough, show us how heritage sites are not bubbles of beauty in uninhabited tourist idylls: they are often integrated into busy post-industrial communities long reliant on heritage tourism for their economies.
Third, while this blog has highlighted memorials at beauty spots and ancient monuments, I feel guilty of neglecting more mundane yet public and well-frequented locations for memorial benches. I certainly haven’t paid attention to workplace memorials, especially for fast food chains that pride themselves in recruiting people for low wages, and therefore the demographic of workers is young and fluid. These are an important dimension of our contemporary landscapes worthy of further investigation and commentary.
Fourth, the specific environs of McDonald’s car park seems a somewhat dismal place for a memorial bench. Yet I would contend it is apposite. I would have regarded such an environment as a space for little more than sitting in the car and eating, or else making the slow unhealthy stagger in and out of the restaurant itself trying to avoid other drivers busy simultaneously gulping down burgers, dropping fries and driving their vehicles. Putting a bench here, funded by friends, family and co-workers, does however change the space and its significance, adding a functional ability to sit and reflect in the open air and away from the picnic benches of the restaurant itself. For those who live and frequently visit, it adds a personal and poignant reminder a young man’s untimely demise amidst the otherwise anonymous and undifferentiated corporate consumer landscape.
Finally, the online references to this young man’s death are abrupt and formulaic, the newspapers say little beyond the basics. Social media is a string of standard expressions of loss. So I’d like this post to itself be a tribute, one that pays some attention at least to the physical memorial to the two men, one young, one old, and the attention afforded to giving them a public place of remembrance.