Marking the spot

Charles Cowling

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there…

Here’s an instruction more honoured in the breach than the observance. These, the opening lines of one of Britain’s favourite funeral poems, highlight the contradiction inherent in our complex psychological need to mark the spot where the body or ash of a loved one is laid or strewn.

Most people, whether religious or atheist, agree that, wherever their dead person is now, he or she is not there, not at the spot that they memorialise. Yet still they feel, nevertheless, strongly impelled to mark that spot.

Can you explain this?

Dr Johnson asserted that “grief is a species of idleness”. If he was right – he was a lifelong depressive so he may have a point – then one remedy for grief is activity.

A memorial certainly offers opportunities for therapeutic activity. It gives mourners
· somewhere to go
· something to do

If there’s anything in this theory, then it’s the physical rituals and observances associated with journeying to and tending a memorial or a grave which are emotionally nourishing. They enable you to do something about how you feel, and something for the dead person.

You can mark the spot in all sorts of physical ways, as you know, whether with a headstone, a folly or a tree.

But have you come across the virtual way: the online memorial site? Yes, now you can memorialise a dead person in cyberspace.

I think there’s a great deal to be said for the idea behind the online memorial site. It is zeitgeisty, closely related to social networking sites like Facebook. It can bring together a community of grieving people who may be widely scattered geographically. It gives you somewhere to go and something to do.

Are these sites tasteful or tacky?

Here’s a question which applies to everything funerary. Views polarise. One person’s meaningful is another person’s maudlin. A willow coffin is either a thing of rustic loveliness or it is a giant picnic hamper. A horse-drawn hearse: is that heritage or gangster?

There’s no distinguishing between what is seemly and what is sentimental.

Online memorial sites are evolving fast. Some have already fallen foul of natural selection. Some have fallen foul of entrepreneurs: Legacy.com looks set to make millions from digitised tears worldwide: it hosts online obituaries for more than 650 newspapers, including The Times, and its database contains every dead American since 1937.

Two really good sites out there are, in my (it’s only my) opinion, GoneTooSoon and, best of the lot, MuchLoved. Both are free. Highly recommended. Check them out.

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