Longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

When the news of Amy Winehouse's death broke last night, one of my earliest thoughts was that I should get down to Camden Square and see what was happening. Call me ghoulish or intrusive if you like: I'm just interested in how people deal with death.

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Why do we do this? Why go to Camden Square? I have no data, only my imagination, but this is how I think it works.

Place is important when dealing with death. In the first initial hit of grief, it's about being close to the person you lost. Whether that's leaving flowers at Amy's house or Diana's palace, visiting a fresh grave in a cemetery, or (if you're a Victorian) sitting beside the coffin in a catacomb, physical nearness is important. We want to hold on.

Sometimes physical nearness is impossible. When we're mourning a celebrity, we won't be invited to the funeral, and by the time there is a grave to visit (if there will be), the initial outpouring of grief is over. So when we need it, when the news of the death hits, the place they lived or died can act as a proxy for the actual body. It's becoming unusual to even have a grave: only around a quarter of British dead are now buried, so we have to become more flexible on place. Roadside memorials to those who die in traffic accidents are just one instance of this.

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Ones own approach to the place is important: visiting is an act of pilgrimage, the disruption of the daily routine as an act of memory, the leaving of a token to prove the visit. I'd argue that the taking, too, is important: mediaeval pilgrims brought back badges to prove where they'd been. Now, we take photos and put them on Flickr and Facebook. I was worried I'd be intrusive, taking photos; as it turned out, almost everyone was.

But having a place that belongs to the dead is a way of coping too. Once the initial burst of grief subsides, *visiting* the dead is a way to corral grief (loss, guilt, anger... whichever emotions you have) into a discrete location, to be visited but not inhabited. It can be left.

Many different types of place can represent this memorial space. It does not need to be the grave itself. Diana's rather difficult to reach grave leaves Kensington Palace a more accessible place to remember her: I'll be visiting on 31st August, and I will bet right now, there will be huge numbers of memorials to her again this year. It's actually (and forgive me for introducing the Nazis into this, but it was in the news this week...) why destroying Rudolf Hess's grave will most likely not stop the neo-Nazi pilgrimages: the site is the important thing, not the presence of the body - and the site is already established as a place of pilgrimage.

The title, for those who are wondering, is a quote from The Canterbury Tales.

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5 Responses to Longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

  1. Dan Wilson says:

    I recall arriving back in London on the day before Diana's funeral on the Eurostar having travelled overnight from Prague by train. I walked from Waterloo to Buckingham Palace and then to Kensington Palace (I must have been fitter then) in quite blistering late summer heat with my rucksack.

    It was very strange. The quiet, gathered masses around Buck House and the pool of flowers was huge. But Kensington was unbelievable. The sheer scale impossible almost to recall. The smell of the flowers (isn't this when a bunch of flowers became a floral tribute?) was overwhelming and there were people weeping and wailing.

    I subscribe to the idea that these deaths (and Diana was the big one) provide a focus for our own troubles and fears. The stiff upper lip is allowed to wobble if everyone is doing it. They aren't crying for Diana, or Amy Winehouse, but themselves and those they have lost.

    At the time I recall feeling that the spectacle was most Unbritish. But then I was young. It makes more sense to me now.

    And somewhere in the album are snaps (like what were developed and everything from film) of the floral tributes outside the British Embassy in Prague. Out there, and the Czechs do seem to have an unusual affection for the Brits, everyone kept telling me how sorry they were that she was gone. Weird. Cos I didn't know her at all.

    • Sue says:

      It was honestly rather strange, and I'm not sure what anyone was doing there today (apart from me: I was definitely there in a voyeuristic capacity).

      No one was crying. A few people were looking stunned. Most were taking photos frantically; there was a real sense that people wanted to record this, especially the police tape and the copper outside the house. It felt more like people wanted to prove that they'd been there than anything else.

      If you've read "Let's Go to Golgotha", it was more like that than anything else I can think of.

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