On this blog, one strand I pursue linked to my teaching and research is the contemporary archaeology of death and memory. Hence, I not only delve into death in the distant past, I also explore the 20th/21st-century architectures, memorials, material cultures and landscapes of crematoria, cemeteries, churches and churchyards, burial grounds and conflict memorials. Here’s my most recent publication, focusing on cremation burials in rural churchyards. I also investigate contemporary memorials ‘beyond the grave’, including those in zoos, by roadsides, in market squares, informal and private burial grounds, as well as statues and public art addressing memorial themes. Memorial plaques on benches and seats are a further way by which death is distributed through open-air recreational spaces in Britain. Other acts of inscribing memories away from the cemetery which I’ve discussed include memorial dimensions of graffiti, coin trees, love-locks, floral offerings (here and here), and ash-scattering (most recently here, and here). Together, I hope to explore dimensions of recent material engagements with mortality.
An update on this theme comes from some family walks in North Wales. Here, I want to consider more encounters with human ashes in country parks. The result of the modern two-stage cremation process – burning (cremation) and crushing (cremulation), the white fragments are readily distinguishable from other deposits. Here is one example: ashes scattered on a prominent hilltop in Flintshire: Hope Mountain. I’ve discussed this hill before as an environment for walking and commemoration here and here. Previously, I’ve witnessed ashes here just away from the high-point, and over the quarries, at a point with vistas west, north and east over the Welsh landscape and into England. This time, a similar location has been selected, set back from the edge of the quarry this time, but still enjoying extensive and expansive views over the countryside.
Close by was what seems to be a tree, perhaps deliberately planted and with ribbons tied on it to commemorate a person no longer with us. I saw no ashes scattered here, amidst the brambles, so perhaps the ashes were scattered where there are views, and the tree is related, but situated in a more modest situation.
Elsewhere, in another country park at Ty Mawr, we found a bench with a memorial plaque and a floral offering to commemorate the dead person, perhaps on an anniversary.
Most choking and disturbing, however, are the uses of letters, cards and memorial plaques to affix a textual dimension to the landscape. Hand-written messages and inscribed plaques with spelling mistakes afford a sense that these are depositions and inscriptions sitting somewhere between formal and informal memorials: unmediated but decisive expressions of loss and love speaking to the living and the dead.
In the early 21st century, death is all around us, away from cemeteries. In our parks and paths: there are ashes, texts and traces of the dead.