Coronavirus remembrance and memorials should not be led by the Government, new report argues

By Scarlett Hills-Brooks   |   Reporter   |
Tuesday 15th March 2022 5:00 pm
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Future memorials and remembrance events to mark the coronavirus pandemic should not be led by the Government, and must mark the scale of the pandemic without depersonalising loss, a new report argues.

Those organising commemorations must be also cautious that narratives of heroism and sacrifice do not dominate reflections on British experiences of COVID-19, the research says. Any public reflection and remembrance must be sensitive to the diversity of the UK.

The report, by Professor David Tollerton, from the University of Exeter, says government support for remembrance can have “limited value” but points out the current difficulties of state involvement. Engagement with grassroots initiatives should be prioritised instead.

Professor Tollerton has worked with charities including Marie Curie, faith groups, and public bodies to examine lessons from the past which could make new memorials or events most beneficial. This includes memorials of the two world wars, the Holocaust, and the Spanish Flu pandemic. The hope is the report will inform future work to mark the impact of the crisis.

Professor Tollerton said: “The global COVID-19 pandemic is an event of immense scale in terms of loss of life, bereavement, and changes in society. There is a pressing need for public reflection and an emerging culture of remembrance. It is valuable to critically consider what patterns are emerging, to invite active public debate about how society should respond to loss and bereavement during the pandemic, to be aware of possible pitfalls, and to strive toward ‘better’ forms of reflection and remembrance.”

Professor Tollerton ran workshops and interviews and his report argues that the remembrance of other past events – and what has been forgotten – can provide a vital resource for thinking through the potentials and challenges of responding to COVID-19. This includes using the resources of archives and museums.

The report says the public has sometimes so far been uncertain about what they are reflecting upon and remembering because of how narrowly or broadly experiences of the pandemic have been portrayed. Reflection so far has focused on mourning, but also wider societal experiences of the pandemic.

Professor Tollerton said: “The motivations for public reflection and remembrance can vary, and we should be especially aware of a propensity toward emphasising narratives of heroism and sacrifice. As a nation we will need to see how such complex dynamics organically play out, but alongside this, it is valuable to invite active public debate about how society should respond to loss and bereavement during the pandemic, to be aware of possible pitfalls, and to strive toward ‘better’ forms of reflection and remembrance.

“A necessary balancing act is required to communicate both the scale of loss and remembrance of individual experiences. Strategies for doing this are emerging out of the many grassroots remembrance activities, and might also be further drawn from historic parallels.”

Those questioned said digital reflection and remembrance initiatives have been hugely impactful, but they wanted the experience of physical spaces and in-person events amidst responses to the pandemic. This is especially important as women have been more likely to take part in digital commemoration so far.

The report recommends any memorials should prioritise reflection on death and bereavement since March 2020, but with an openness to including other individual and societal difficulties arising from the pandemic.

Those interviewed said their preference was for non-political reflection and remembrance but many accepted that no inclusive national-level initiative can wholly avoid instances of implicit political commentary.

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