Nov 17, 2015
Major university study to shine a light on the ‘dearly departed’

For the thousands of people paying their respects at the 2015 Remembrance Day services, keeping alive the memory of the fallen of two World Wars remains a solemn duty. 

But researchers at the University of Hull will be asking mourners on November 8 to look a little deeper and try to explain why they continue to commemorate the millions who lost their lives. The survey*, which takes place at the Remembrance Day Parade and Service at Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire, marks the launch of ‘Remember Me – the Changing Face of Memorialisation. It is an innovative £850,000 research programme into the rituals and memorials surrounding death and dying – from the dawn of human history to the age of social media. 

The 30-month multidisciplinary project, which is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will draw on a wide range of research methods and materials to explore the changing face of mourning in Britain. 

Project lead, Professor Margaret Holloway of the University of Hull’s School of Social Sciences, said that it was the first systematic attempt to study new types of mourning ritual. “Despite all the innovations in funeral rites, there is still clearly a fundamental human need for meaning but, as yet, little to guide mourners, or those professionals and community representatives supporting them. Hopefully, our analysis will change that.” 

She said that the way we remember the passing of loved ones is going through a period of rapid and radical change, with the advent of innovations such as Internet memorial sites and ‘DIY’ funerals. 

“Whereas in the past, people would have drawn meaning and comfort from traditional religious rites, modern responses to death are becoming much more personal and secular. “This is creating a lot of confusion and conflict, as people try to make sense of these new ceremonies and rituals. Our wide-ranging study will survey the full breadth of these changing practices and, for the first time, place them in an historical context.” 

A project advisory group will include representatives from the funeral services sector and the study will share its findings with people working in ‘end of life’ care, such as hospices. Professor Holloway said that the research would enable these professionals to respond more effectively to new forms of mourning. Historians, social scientists, archaeologists, ethnographers and a photographer will all contribute to the study, which culminates in a major national conference and public exhibition to coincide with the UK City of Culture celebrations in 2017. 

The project will undertake two surveys of literature, media and Internet sources, (covering both archaeological and contemporary studies of death) two freestanding strands (covering the significance of photography in mourning and the growth of ‘free writing’ in hospices) and four case studies. Fieldwork will be carried out in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Barbados, and throughout the UK.

The case studies will examine Polish immigrants in Hull, the transgender community, military families and dementia sufferers. In each case researchers will explore some of tensions among the bereaved, for example about the identity of the deceased and different ideas about how their lives should be represented after death.

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