This post addresses the sensitive subject of infant and child death and specifically how it is memorialised in contemporary society. Please bear this in mind reading onwards.
The topic of the material, monumental and spatial dimensions of infant and child death is a topic of academic research in its own right, but also has comparative significance for studying the lifeways and deathways in the human past. It is also a key component of our conversations about the future of our mortuary and commemorative practices in which archaeologists can have insights and contributions to wider cross-disciplinary and public conversations.
To this end, in successive previous posts, I’ve attempted to reflect on the emerging and ongoing distinctive material cultures and memorials associated with infant and childhood death in cemeteries and gardens of remembrance, including gravestones, flowers, toys and other symbols and material cultures linked to the commemoration of those who have tragically died too young. These memorials are often amidst family grave-plots, but there has been a long-term trend over at least the last half-century to increasingly set them aside and together in special zones within deathscapes. In recent decades, these have not only been carefully demarcated, but they have been afforded distinctive sculptures, furniture and even play spaces for families to visit with living offspring whilst paying their respects to loved ones who have passed on.
The ‘Sweet Dreams Baby Garden’ discussed as part of my blog-post on the structuring of space in a Cheshire crematorium is but one example. Likewise here is a discussion of another. Last year, I also addressed the new and largely empty space of a Midlands crematorium where sculpture and memorial spaces have been set aside to memorialise infant and child deaths.
In 2017, I tackled a striking moment in the chronological evolution of childhood commemoration when I saw the first Frozen (2013) toys adorning a child’s grave. For a Continental comparison, check out my post regarding Dutch crematoria from 2018 in which I discuss the widespread butterfly motifs, specifically used in the ‘baby garden’ there.
This memorialisation of children and childhood extends beyond the cemetery and crematorium environment: I’ve discussed memorial shrines in the landscape to infants and children as here. Likewise, I’ve tackled childhood commemoration at the National Memorial Arboretum over four posts:
Also, I’ve addressed the use of the Queen’s Park Bridge in Chester each September, adorned with memorials to those who have died in childhood or early adulthood from cancer. Check out my blog-post from 2019 and the TikTok below from this month.
Dealing with infant and childhood death in the historical past is also a feature of the arts. So, moving into fictional portrayals of past times, I’ve repeatedly addressed child and infant death in the TV show Vikings:
- Vikings Season 2 – Private Mourning and Infanticide
- Angrbotha’s Anti-Funeral – Vikings Season 4 part 1
- Burying an infant in Vikings Season 6 part 1
Looking back in time, I’ve discussed 19th-century child memorials (the Chewing Gum Girl, Overleigh Cemetery: here’s a second post here), a instance (at St Mary’s Chirk) of breastfeeding sculpted as part of an intramural church funerary monuments and the present-day commemoration of a centrally situated child’s burial at Woodhenge, Wiltshire. Meanwhile, back in 2015 I addressed the depiction of a child as part of one of my own book covers. Further back in 2014 I addressed what I called ‘funerary art paedophobia‘: my dislike of representations of infants, children and cherubs in funerary art.
On many other cemetery and crematoria visits I have observed the material cultures and memorials associated with infant and child death, but I’ve often been reluctant to discuss them because of the sensitivities of the topic. Now, however, I wish now to return to the topic of ‘rainbow gardens’ or ‘baby gardens’ but to discuss in more detail the specific contrasts between cremation vs. inhumation zones dedicated to memorialising very early deaths.
In doing so, I have pixelated out visible names and not mentioned the location of the cemetery and crematorium in question. However, please bear in mind that this is an active memorial space and my focus is not on specific choices by individual mourners, but the over structure and material cultures of the memorial environments.
I wish to share the Rainbow Garden in the cemetery. First, it seems the sundial-style teddy bear and rabbit memorial looks as if it is intended to be a focus of ash-scattering, so this is a space for both cremation deposition/interment as well as inhumation burial. The sculpture provides a collective focus in which imagined childhoods experienced or cut short, are a focus of reflection.
The memorials are incredibly varied but share in both design and material culture in fantasy, pet and wild (woodland) animals, as well as various toys, ornaments and (of course) flowers. The colour and animation is a key theme, with windmills and solar-powered small garden lights creating a dense and vivid collective display, with the back-to-back nature of memorials intensifying this impression.
There are even the furniture is child-themed – with a bunny-bench adjacent to the grave-plots. Finally, the area is set apart from the other graves, but open to the paths without restrictions. There is significant space remaining for new burials, so the lawn disguises any clear demarcations. Thus, the Rainbow Garden blurs into the surroundings.
Finally, I wish to reflect on the choice of phrase ‘Rainbow Garden’, a term that I’ve elsewhere seen used for animal cemeteries and memorial spaces. At one level, it implies a colourful space, which is a fair and accurate description. In other regards, it evokes the idea of a transitional afterlife space (like the ‘rainbow bridge’ idea): a waiting room and transition point between this world and the next. It thus serves to express journeys to and from, or communications with, the afterlife. Yet it does so in a suitably non-denominational and euphemistic fashion.
This second arrangement has a different name and I suspect is older: the ‘Children’s Memorial Garden’. It shares with the Rainbow Garden in emphasising vivid, condensed, animated and material-culture and floral-rich gardens set apart from the rest of the cemetery and garden of remembrance. Yet it stand in stark contrast by being exclusively for the cremated dead and it is located at the same site but close to the crematorium. Its borders are a further contrast: they clearly defined by tall hedges, thus creating a more private space for commemoration.
The memorial foci are varied and different too. For while there are shared attempts to create collective memorial foci – the bear and rabbit memorial in the Raindbow Garden, in this space a tree stump, an memorial column, and a memorial wall, as well as discrete plots around the edges for ledgers and other memorial plots. The furniture includes a book-stack bench and a bunny-bench, the latter being the only key material ingredient shared with the Rainbow Garden.
My simple point is that not only are individual ‘baby garden’s all different from each other, there seems to be a shift in the material cultures and architectures. While retaining the desire for separated and thus more private environments for bereavement and commemoration, in this case at the very least, there has been a shift to more open and accessible, rather than private and enclosured memorials. However, I’m unsure if this is a general trend or not. It certainly makes sense of some other gardens of remembrance and cemeteries I’ve visited, but I’m not confident the move to more ‘open’ spaces is a wider trend.
I hope this little review has been of interest and I will blog about more of these spaces as I encounter them.