Unlike public parks and country parks where memorial benches proliferate, today’s heritage sites and monuments carefully steward the establishment of formal contemporary memorials within their grounds. Indeed, many English Heritage, Cadw and National Trust sites robustly resist a move towads memorialisation on their benches in any regard. Hence, many heritage sites have few, or are bereft of, memorial benches.
It would be easy to suggest that such spaces are ‘death-defying’ – as I have done for certain monastic ruins in England and Wales. However, for Welsh castles sites at least, memorials to the dead of various kinds can indeed be found. Previously I’ve mentioned formal memorials, including the war memorial gates to Cilgerran Castle and memorials and art installations commemorating historic events and personages at Kidwelly Castle, Llandovery Castle, or the battle commemorations close to castles at Ewloe and Chirk.
Also, I’ve spotted the odd memorial bench at these sites, as discussed for Llawhaden Castle and Beeston Castle where they memorialise those with a special connection to the place. Then there are the less formal votive deposits in castles, including ashes as Castell Dinas Brân and floral tributes at Caergwrle Castle. I’ve even encountered an informal memorial to the archaeologist who dug a castle: at Dolforwyn.
It’s important to put these in context: many Welsh castles have no overt memorial dimensions. Yet put these examples together (and there are many others I could mention and will do in future blogs), and the link between castles and the commemoration of both the recent and distant dead constitutes a significant cultural phenomenon. Visiting heritage sites not only involves encountering ruins and the heritage stories wrapped around them, it involves encountering memorials. My point would be that (a) this rarely gets discussed that there is a dimension of education and engagement with mortality during castle heritage experiences and (b) that the ethics of these installations need further consideration by academics and heritage professionals.
Amidst this range, I recently spotted a ‘first’ for my travels recently when I visited a well-known South Wales Cadw-run castle site where I encountered a memorial bench on the anniversary of the deceased’s death. This added a further dimension to the heritage space of a fabulous site: Raglan Castle. Upon the bench was a beautiful floral tribute: a bouquet of flowers. It reminded me of how memorial benches operate to create spaces for floral deposition on anniversaries of death.
So this creates a distinctive memorial dimension to the space linked to time. For this day alone (I presume the floral offering is removed at some set duration after its placing by the family), the bench is not for the living to sit upon. Instead it is for the dead person to ‘occupy’.
How do visitors interact with such tributes? Are we supposed to ‘steer clear’? Well, it is in a public space and I was a paying visitor to this space. My kids got again to see a memorial for the recent dead unexpectedly, and I see this as a positive thing. Rather than circumvent this bench, I let them approach and I explained it to them. I told them not to touch the flowers but explained why they were there. I didn’t try to herd them away from the area since they were interested in both the flowers and their placing. Death needs to be discussed and encountered, not denied. Heritage spaces have a responsibility in this regard too.