In memory of anonymous deaths

Richard Porch ponders on the modern etiquette of floral tributes to fatalities in our public spaces

Death used to have no dominion in the modern city. The constant ebb and flow of the human tide and the pulse of traffic through the concrete arteries of the city’s roads did not allow for it. Someone’s death because of a traffic accident was instantly cleared away. No trace was left, which was how we thought it should be.

That was until the advent of the floral tribute. Now, when someone is mown down by traffic or otherwise killed, bouquets of flowers identify the scene. Delivered by close friends and relatives they may or may not involve a soft toy – it depends on the age of the deceased.

The delivery of such tributes at the location where it occurred appears to take place within hours of it having happened. It creates an instant focus for mourning and is vested with civic significance. Such floral tributes are often reinstated upon the anniversary of the accident. They can be seen on footbridges, railings or a street light near the location of the fatality.

They make a touching tribute and, composed of flowers, they are destined to poignantly wither away and die. I’ve often wondered about the etiquette of the floral tribute. Does it stay in place until it crumbles into so many dried flowers and blows away on the wind? Or do the street cleaners remove them discreetly after a suitable amount of time has elapsed? What is a suitable amount of time?

My personal observation is that they seem to be allowed to dehydrate and then disperse as wind-blown litter. The forlorn length of ribbon that attached the tribute to this or that piece of street furniture is usually the very last thing to go. I’m never sure whether they are removed or drop off as they, too, decay. I suspect that no-one wants to be seen removing withered floral tributes and putting them into a black plastic rubbish bag. Although they occupy a small part of a public place they have achieved the sanctity of a graveside memorial. Interesting that. As I write this I daresay some clever soul in a council somewhere is developing a strategy or protocol for dealing with the issue.

I’ve seen such floral tributes on pedestrian walkways that people have jumped from, on river bridges where someone has toppled in, and in the street where someone was cut down by a car. They become a temporary feature that briefly draws your attention to something that was probably all over and done with in a fraction of a second. It recalls the moment when someone gave in to illness or desperation, became careless near a river bank, or was run down in the course of crossing the road.

Because such tragic events have occurred in the busy urban environment it means that people will be unlikely or unwilling to spend time actually looking at them. Most of the time passers by will merely slow their walk past to count the number of tributes. They might pause just long enough to note the name of the fatality in case they knew them. In other words, all we give them is a brief attempt at verification which is the only level on which one can assimilate what has happened.

A good many now re-appear on the anniversary of the accident or suicide, and thereby achieve an annual presence. After a few years of commemoration one becomes acquainted with the fact that a death has occurred at that point in the city. However, because it has occurred in a public place there is no permanent memorial inscription. Nonetheless, that place however does achieve some significance in one’s mind. Someone I didn’t know died there.

This is a curious phenomenon that succeeds in resurrecting the fact of an anonymous death on an annual basis. So while it does not have the sanctity of a grave or a memorial (a cenotaph) in its frail humanity the floral tribute commemorates the death of a living being by forcing us to commune (if only  subconsciously) with our own fate. If one thinks of how we experience cities at the most basic level – as a series of buildings, roads and public spaces – then the floral tribute is perhaps functioning as a metaphor for death in the midst of city life.

Where death is more usually ‘recognised’ in cities is in the municipal necropolis or graveyard. Here in a special ‘dead quarter’ the deceased can be recalled or grieved for in the specially landscaped setting of a cemetery. Row after row of marble headstones and pots of flowers in stale water offer a contained experience. There is no celebration here, only the fact of death.

This is not to say that our urban landscapes do not commemorate death. This, of course, is the role of war memorials. They dot every city, town or village of any size and are very visible and usually of an architectural scale. They have an annual day of recognition on Remembrance Sunday every November when the state recognises individual sacrifice.

But this is about lives lost in the name of a cause. One of the infrequent times that a word of ancient Greek enters our vocabulary is when we say ‘Cenotaph’ which means ‘empty tomb’. The empty tomb in question being found at the top of a block of stone designed as a classical pylon and usually inscribed with the dates of the conflict.

We owe these structures to a Welsh Prime Minister, Lloyd George who in July 1919 commissioned the great Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens to design the very first. Intended as a temporary monument of a non-denominational character for a victory parade in Whitehall, it took staff in the Office of Works five days to build in timber and plaster. Lutyens’ austere and abstract design made an immediate impact. Left unveiled overnight, it was spontaneously adorned by masses of anonymous bouquets left by members of the public and fresh bouquets arrived every day thereafter. It somehow touched a nerve. It named no one but functioned then (as now) as a focus for mourning. A permanent Cenotaph in stone followed which is the one we see now in Whitehall.

Swansea’s Cenotaph has a superb seafront location and sits within an octagon of Portland stone walling. It commemorates those from Swansea who fell in the two World Wars and their names appear in bronze plaques around the walls of the little stone square it occupies. In all its austere elegance and static calm the Cenotaph looks out into Swansea Bay that is continuously defined and redefined by each tide. It will never acquire the invisibility of the city centre memorial and be eclipsed by other buildings. Clouds well up from weather systems that blow in from the Bristol Channel and create a dramatic and ever-changing backdrop to this memorial to patriotic sacrifice. I don’t know who chose the site. Conceivably it was the Borough Architect Ernest Morgan in 1922. However, it poignantly invites us to contemplate natural forces ceaselessly active for millennia and the temporary nature of human existence.

Richard Porch is a freelance writer and commentator on the architecture and design scene in Wales.

4 thoughts on “In memory of anonymous deaths

  1. It’s occurred to me that the practice of placing flowers where the person died instead of at their grave tends to focus minds first and foremost on the death event rather than the person’s life. Just a thought.

  2. Delighted that someone has the courage to publicly raise such a topic. The reality is that each and every one of us dies. It can be a life shattering for those of us who embrace the death of a family member – whether a spouse, parent,siblings, a child: a special aunt or uncle, a grand parent – or a close and loving friend . It is a time of grieving, which for some can be too much to endure. For others with a loving family and real friends it is possible that they can endure and over come.

    Public grief is another issue in the empathy of a shared loss for just one person or a group of people. For some people they can feel the need to share such grief, though they never knew or met the person or persons who died. A connection of their regard for the deceased is a display of their humanity in an often cruel world. Often shared by symbols such as furry toys,flowers, a personal letter or card.

    Death due to acts of war is, I believe, somewhat different, as it is feed by negative forces and feelings which continue to ripple as a negative force ad infinitum. Personally I regard this as a very destructive force upon the living, which could and should be dealt with in a different manner.

    Life is a precious creative force, a gift for the living. Death awaits us all. I do not look forward nor seek my own, neither do I fear death. I do not glory or rejoice in the deaths from War. Mankind has never given Peace a chance!

  3. I think they can serve as a warning to drivers and pedestrians. I was about to overtake a Mansel Davies truck near Aberystwyth today, before remembering that I’d seen quite a lot of flowers on that stretch of the road in recent years! I decided against it. I also took care crossing the road near my halls of residence at Cardiff University because of the flowers I’d seen tied to the railings there!

  4. A beautifully written piece, thought provoking. I have thought for a long time that the roadside tributes are the secular equivalent of the wayside shrines to the virgin or various saints that bless the countryside in France and parts of rural especially Eastern Europe.

    Well done Richard for raising this topic in such a delicate way.

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