Saturday 28 February 2015

'Reader I Married Him' | Literature, Films and Other Cultural Influences

NB: there are a few book, film and TV spoilers in what follows

Perhaps the happy-to-be bigamist, patriarchal, grumpy Mr Rochester would not be the choice of that many 21st century women or men but the romance in Jane Eyre is still loved by many. Apologies to Charlotte Bronte for having borrowed the first sentence in the last chapter of her book for the title of this blog entry. Interestingly we aren’t invited to the actual wedding of Jane and Edward and are only present at the one that was halted because of ‘just impediment’. Not much is made of the wedding of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, in Pride and Prejudice the book either although some of the film and television adaptations include lavish ceremonies. Examples here include the 1990s BBC version famous for the ‘Mr Darcy/Colin Firth wet shirt’ scene (which of course wasn’t in the book) and the Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice. There are numerous commentaries - both written and on screen - about all of these, and other versions. 

There are of course a plethora of TV programmes and films that do include weddings, commitment and renewal of vows ceremonies. Just a few weddings that I’ve watched more than once: Bridesmaids, In her Shoes, Nanny McPhee, and Gavin and Stacey (there are a few across the series which includes another thwarted ceremony, this time between Nessa and Dave Coaches). The media both reflects and influences societal expectation and individual (and couple) choice and I wonder how many brides opted for a Doctor Who or Telly Tubbies theme after watching the ceremonies of Geraldine, The Vicar of Dibley or Alice her verger and how many best men have planned a surprise musical interlude following the wedding at the beginning of Love Actually?  It’s not just weddings and commitment ceremonies that find inspiration from the media of course and after the actor John Hannah’s rendition of the Funeral Blues by W. H. Aden the poem was republished in a pamphlet of ten which has sold many thousands of copies. Watch it here

The first time I first thought about how a funeral might be different from the historically expected norm was watching an episode of Cracker (the 1990s TV series about a criminal psychologist who works with the Greater Manchester police to help them solve crimes). One episode includes Cracker’s (played by Robbie Coltrane) mother’s funeral within which all of those assembled play a game of Bingo; her favourite pastime. Yet although poems, non-religious prose and games might be much more common in contemporary funeral ceremonies than they once were Billy Connolly’s character's choice in What We Did on Our Holiday (I won’t go into detail here as this is a recent film that many might not have seen) is likely less popular.  

Inspiration for readings and music (everything from Wet,Wet Wet’s Love is all Around in Four Weddings . . . to Invitation to the Dance by Carl Maria von Weber which is the music that the Dibley vicar and Darcy Bussell perform their mirror routine to) ideas for dress,
procedure and the odd surprise or two doesn't just come from the fictional and reality based programmes and social media are increasingly influential. A cursory glance at Pinternet, for example, would give you lots of ideas. Just type weddings, funerals or naming ceremonies into the search box and see what you get. Why not try UK Society of Celebrants or Celebrants Tales too.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Memories and Memorials (3) | Embodiment and Body Art

In my last blog entry I referred to a social life after death; that is the lasting influence and meaning – the social continuation – of an individual in the lives of others after their death.

In Memories and Memorials (1) and (2) I wrote about some of the ways and forms, from the funeral/memorial ceremony onwards, that the living commemorate the memory of the dead. That grief in an embodied experience – something that we experience physically as well as emotionally – is well recognised and understood. Furthermore, it is possible to commemorate a loved one through body modification via a memorial tattoo. A tattoo of this type is yet another form of ‘autobiographical occasion’, demonstrating through image, words, colour and ink (it is even possible to mix some of the deceased's ashes with the tattoo ink) the relationship between the self and the other, telling at least part of the story of the bearer’s relationship and interconnections with the person who has died. 

Tattooing is one of the most persistent and universal forms of body modification. In many societies tattoos, alongside scarification and body painting, are recognized as markers of rites of passage. Historically in Western society tattoos were often associated with deviance  although the incidence and social acceptance of tattooing has increased with varying sources suggesting that between 25% and 38% of us (slightly more men than women) now have at least one tattoo with almost 20% of people having two or more. 

I am honoured to be part of a project initiated and maintained by Deborah Davidson (York University, Ontario). Deborah is coordinating a public-professional-academic collaboration, built around the curation and study of commemorative tattoos – tattoos which are understood by their contributors as being in recognition of a living or deceased person, animal, place, relationship, or important life event or transition. The user-generated digital library of commemorative tattoos and accompanying narratives is available to view and contribute to at:

The Tattoo Project

We are our stories and our tattoos are how we remember never to forget (Isaac Fitzgerald in Pen and Ink, 2014: x).

Not only does the site provide a repository for commemorative tattoos it serve as a cultural heritage site, acknowledging and sharing important memories of contemporary lived experience and will be of use to researchers and in the development of ongoing relationships among academics, professionals (e.g. artists, counsellors, social workers, and celebrants) and people in general.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Memories and Memorials (2) | Life Stories

A couple of years ago I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom which is a novel which does want it says on the tin; the five people not necessarily being the ones the hero of the book was closest to but the five most significant in terms of life chances and experiences. When he meets his wife she says:

Lost love is still love Eddie. It takes a different form, that’s all. You can’t see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it (Albom 2003: 184-185).

I don’t see Five People as a religious novel, and it’s certainly not denominational. Additionally, it is much more about Eddie’s life and the (often lasting) impact he had on other people and the impact they had on him, than about this death or any afterlife.  

I often read novels where death is a theme and find them as enjoyable and rewarding as a good love story or mystery. As many writers have argued fiction affects its’ readers at an immediate and an emotional level. So much so that alongside more traditional representations such as reports and verbal presentations researchers in the humanities and social sciences now sometimes use the genre of fiction (and other arts based approaches) to share research stories within and beyond the academy.  My own readings tastes, like those of many people, are eclectic and although I don’t just read fiction like Brenda Walker (2010) I find I am able to escape into and find comfort especially in this form of writing. Walker’s book is called Reading by Moonlight: how books saved a life and in it she writes about how she turned to books, to literature, to reading as well as to medicine following a cancer diagnosis. This bookcase is in my hall, opposite the loo. It’s packed with novels, academic texts (including some I’ve written or edited myself), some coffee table type publications and one poetry book. The other several bookcases in my flat contain a similar mix. There are (auto)biographies too.

Steph Lawler (2008) reminds us that although few of us will formally write an autobiography we all engage in autobiographical work every day. So we write letters, we complete job applications, we keep diaries and write things on calendars and we talk about ourselves with others all the time. Robert Zussman (2005) uses the term ‘autobiographical occasions’ to refer to the times we are encouraged or required to provide accounts of ourselves. The use of the word occasions may suggest a rare, or at least not regular, occurrence whereas autobiographical practice is in fact a constant aspect of life.

We don’t just tell stories about ourselves of course but also stories of others; friends, family members, acquaintances, work-mates, individuals – living or dead – who we admire. Although the deceased may have had some input into the construction of their obituary and eulogy before they died much and most of these are written by others. Drawing on the memories of those significant in the personal and professional life of the person who has died these ‘(auto)biographical occasions’ provide an opportunity to praise and commemorate a life, to paint a picture of a person’s personality, to share some of their favourite concerns and interests and to acknowledge the impact of their lives on others. Such writings, alongside other memorials, highlight the ways in which a person who is biologically dead continues to have an active social presence and influence in the lives of the living.

Albon, Mitch (2003) The Five People You Meet in Heaven London: Shere

Lawler, Steph (2008) Identity: sociological perspectives Cambridge: Polity

Walker, Brenda (2010) Reading by Moonlight: how books saved a life Victoria, Australia: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)

Zussman, Robert (2000) ‘Autobiographical Occasions: Introduction to the Special Issue’ Qualitative Sociology - Special Issue: Autobiographical Occasions 23(1): 5-8

Sunday 15 February 2015

Memories and Memorials (1) | Race(ing) For Life and Love

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day (according to different sources Valentine was the patron saint of, amongst other things, bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and fainting, in addition to  romance) although the shops and the media have of course been advertising and celebrating for much longer. Complicated Grief@CompGrief posted a piece by Chris Raymond on Twitter which focuses on the things one can do to in memory of a loved one who has died on the day that celebrates love and togetherness. The suggestions included leaving a love token on a grave, helping or treating another person, lighting a candle, releasing a helium balloon complete with love letter, planting a tree, listening to your loved one’s favourite song and/or sharing memories with others who also loved them. There were other suggestions, one of which – ‘Participate in a local walk/run that raises funds to support a cause your loved one would champion, or to help find a cure for the illness/disease from which he or she died’ – prompted me to sign up for this year’s annual Cancer UK Race for Life in Falmouth (17th May)

This will be the fourth time I have entered the event and I am hoping to improve on my time again. I’ve never been a runner so I walk fast and jog a bit rather than run but I’m down to 41 minutes for the 5K event, some of which is uphill (!) and given that the first time it took me 58 I’m pleased enough. I am in good company too. Most of the women and children (and dogs) that complete the route along Falmouth seafront really do seem more concerned with the ‘taking part’ than the winning. In joining the event participants are not only trying to raise money to improve cancer survival rates but they are honouring friends and family who are living with or have died as the result of the disease. It is humbling reading the messages pinned to people’s backs and the party atmosphere is heart-warming. Overall it’s a happy event although sadness is all around. Funerals and memorial ceremonies that focus on the life of the person who has died similarly promote mixed emotions, with laughter being as likely as tears, as those in attendance recall and reflect on their own memoires. 

In an article in Sociological Research Online in 2013 Linda Hyman writes that reminiscing is a source of happiness and pleasure for many and people take happiness from past experiences; from their’ memories. There are many ways to remember and memorialise the lives of loved ones, not just on Valentine’s, or any other celebratory day, and a ceremony that truly celebrates their life might be just the beginning of memorialisation.

I smile at my own memories as I prepare for the ‘race’ . . .  I’ve always hated ironing and I’m fairly useless at it and my husband John and my mum Dorothy (whose names will be on my back on the day) were much, much, more likely to press my clothes than I. From this picture though it’s obvious that I need to find and dust off my iron. I’ll post a picture when the day is over to prove it.  I’ll be wearing odd socks too. John starting wearing unmatched pairs out of necessity when his teenage sons constantly ‘borrowed’ his but it became a trademark and my mum in particular enjoyed finding interesting ‘matches’ when putting the washing away. There was some odd sock wearing at John’s funeral ceremony and, just as there should have been, lots of memory sharing at both his and my mum’s.