Think globally, act locally

Charles 7 Comments

All other things being equal, the manner of the death and the age of a dead person determine the response. Diana, sudden, young = vast outpouring of grief. Mandela, protracted, old = vast outpouring of celebration.

They said when it was all over that a factor in the lamentation for Diana was unresolved grief — that people, prevented by social convention from having been able to express what they felt for the deaths of their own, sublimated it instead by mourning the stranger they only knew through the media.

What has not been theorised about Mandela is that he is a focus of unresolved gratitude. Is he? I think it’s a tenable theory.

We have an all-or-nothing culture when it comes to thanking lovely people when they die. Global heroes like Mandela do just fine. But when the lady who brings my post dies she won’t be a news item and my neighbours and I will probably never get to know. There’ll be a little family-and-friends funeral, probably. We may learn about it subsequently, accidentally. We won’t get a chance to ‘show our respects’. I’d certainly like to.

Because the point is, she’s a hero, too. Okay, the record shows that she hasn’t saved Redditch from oppression and civil war. But she is indomitably cheerful, even on the snowiest and slipperiest of days. She is very nice. She has raised, with love and dedication, a son with learning difficulties. Her life — like yours, like mine — has had its adversities and disappointments.

No one’s life is easy. There is much heroism in the lives of ordinary people, much patient endurance of suffering, much unselfishness, much sacrifice, much good done, much lovingkindness shown. It’s undetectable in the people queueing for a bus or shopping in a supermarket. The public face obscures we know not what, but this heroism is general. 

Life’s misadventures make heroes of pretty much everyone. A person who occasionally comments on this blog, Quokkagirl, likes to talk about ‘the extra-ordinariness of ordinary people’. She puts is well.

Today, you can lay your flowers in grateful memory of Mandela in one of lots of places worldwide but you can’t do the same for the extraordinary ordinary members of your community, your local heroes — except in the cases of those whose deaths inspire roadside shrines marking the spot.

The stories of those of your fellow-citizens who have lived and struggled  and won some and lost some are moving and inspiring. All celebrants know this, and many undertakers. Every day their stories are rehearsed in crematoria and churches and gravesides up and down the land. They are extraordinary stories. It’s not their achievements that gild their eulogies, it’s their personal qualities. In this final appraisal, death is the great leveller: we are what we meant to others. 

We set aside space and erect monuments to our glorious dead but not to our ordinary dead. Thus do we lose the lessons they could teach us, the examples that might inspire us and the opportunities to say thank you.

Imagine a structure that would enable you to do this. It would be at the heart of your community. It would accommodate separate spaces for the accommodation of memorials to a number of the recently dead. Each space would be large enough for a short biography, some photos and a place to lay flowers and other tokens. There might be a box where people could post messages. Each memorial would be granted a period of, say, a month.

There you might see the photo of that nice person at the supermarket checkout who always had a cheery word. You might read the story of a schoolteacher you’d never even known who’d inspired so many children to think well of themselves. And you might feel moved to buy a single flower and lay it down with the others.

Pretty much all life stories make for compelling reading. We are all part of each other. There aren’t that many people we want to forget. There are lots we’d like to say thank you to. 

A people’s memorial. What do you say?

FOOTNOTE: So far as I know, the only memorial to ordinary people is in Postman’s Park, London. It was created by the Victorian artist George Frederick Watts as a memorial to ordinary people who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten. 



  1. Charles

    Interesitng post, Charles. Ordinary people get attention when their deaths are extraordinary: victims of war (Menin Gate), genocide (Berlin’s Jewish memorial, 9/11), major accident (Titanic, Tsunami), serial murder (Colombine school) etc. But your postwoman shouldn’t need to die while leaping to save a child in the road to qualify for such a memorial.

    Churches name the dead of their parish in prayers of intercession for their repose. In large churches, the weekly list can be quite long and it’s always poignant when you know someone mentioned. Then there are the deaths listed in newspapers, but neither of these examples form a detailed eulogy.

    I’m not sure how much community spirit remains for a central structure serving this purpose. Perhaps it does in villages and small towns, neither of which, as an urbanite, I have much experience.

    An alternative to a physical structure might be the virtual world, websites chronicling the lives of extra-ordinary ordinary people?

    The tiles in the park shelter, though recording the heroic deaths of ordinary people rather than their heroically ordinary lives, are a good thing, too. A hidden gem.

  2. Charles

    Wonderful sentiment to catch at this time, Charles. Unresolved gratitude may well be a live driving force, along with a resolve to do better ………. I certainly felt it reading those beautiful tiled plaques at Postman’s Park just now.
    The monument too is a lovely idea. Plenty of room in our town parks. I’d go.

  3. Charles

    I love this idea and can’t think why I missed the original post – except that it was near Christmas and I was probably suffering from female Christmas mania. I would love for there to be one in our community. Richard, most of Britain is made up of small villages – many of which were drawn into cities as they expanded. London is a good example – but each village still has their own flavour and their own identities. Worth a go I think. We should be writing to our parish councils and suggesting the idea. I for one will be approaching mine. Worth running this again Charles.

  4. Charles

    For me one of the most joyful and life affirming aspects of being a celebrant is the constant reminder of how extraordinary ordinary lives are. Sacrifice, love, heroism, huge energy and creativity are not exceptional, merely unrecognised. We walk amongst heroes and heroines – we should celebrate them (although most would run a mile from the recognition).

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