Symbols and messages, old and new: Remembrance Sunday at the National Memorial Arboretum

A few weeks ago I was honoured to be a guest at the Remembrance Service at the National Memorial Arboretum. Over the last few years I have come to know the Memorial Arboretum well as a visitor attraction (see here and here). On this occasion I had the opportunity to see it afresh: as a place of ceremonial, at the heart of our nation’s remembrance.

Remembrance Service on Armistace Day at the Armed Forces Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum

This was a formal occasion. The Establishment was there: The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester representing the Royal Family, heads of the Armed Forces, several bishops, a government minister and numerous local dignitaries. The ceremony was accordingly formal, prescribed, embracing our traditions, using familiar words, music and symbols.

The tradition and familiarity linked us to other ceremonies large and small happening at the same time across the country – and to those that have happened on this day for decades. We were playing our part in preserving a heritage. We were keeping a national promise, that ‘we will remember them‘.

On Remembrance Sunday, wreathes of poppies are laid at war memorials in villages and towns throughout the UK in memory of the people killed in war from 1914 onwards.

But that promise was made long ago, before many of us were born. Like the symbol of the poppy it was born in the ghastly trenches of  the Great War of 1914-1918.  Both have endured well.

The last British servicemen from the 1914-1918 war died last year. Veterans of the Second World War (1939-45) are becoming fewer. Will the poppy continue to have resonance for new generations.  Does it speak for those who served in Iraq? Afghanistan? Northern Ireland?

The National Memorial Arboretum is a place that considers this question. It places our established symbols, carefully, in new contexts.

The Armed Forces is designed to mark 11oo hrs on 11th November (the date and time when the 1914-1918 War ended). It was a privilege to be there then. (Look again at the first photograph to see the shaft of light).

It is a place that recognises, and weighs with great care, the meeting points of institutionalised national remembrance with raw, personal bereavement and grief. The new Remembrance Centre, due to open on 11th November 2014, that I have played a part in planning, will make that more explicit.

‘Lest we forget’ … that for many remembrance is personal and painful.

The National Memorial Arboretum recognises that although the people we remember have a place in history, remembrance itself must be a living heritage, that is relevant to contemporary society. Given that British society now is profoundly different from 100 years ago, it considers how and where new symbols and ceremonies to mark remembrance might evolve.

Most of the personal memorials take the traditional form.

Ours is no longer a solely Christian country. Like our Armed Forces, our communities represent all religions and none. We need new symbols and they are appearing. Not all poppies are on crosses, some are on crescents, others on Stars of David and some on simple stakes for those who are outside formal religious categories.

Signposts to a more inclusive remembrance?

But maybe we need bolder steps too.

After the Service and snacks,  we met a bunch of bikers representing the Ride to Wall charity. Theirs is an amazing story of commitment to keeping a legacy alive, of passing on a  message. Five years ago, some ex-military motorcyclists were visiting the NMA, were impressed by it, but struck hard by the question ‘ how on earth can this mean anything to today’s kids?’. They felt remembrance had to be reinvented and decided to do it with bikes. Looking at them, I could see why no one argued, or told them that would be a daft idea.

New times, new symbols, new actions

So that year 200 motor bikes Rode to the Wall ( the wall of the Armed Forces Memorial that is – see above). The next year there were ten times as many.  Last year 15,000 bikes rode to the wall, in seven organised cavalcades.  They raise large sums of money for the NMA and they go into schools and talk to children about why remembrance matters. I believed them when they told me the kids get it.

People with passion and commitment will always find new methods, new media, new ceremonies to celebrate their heritage and pass the message on. And sometimes ‘just doing it’ is just what needs to be done.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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3 Responses to Symbols and messages, old and new: Remembrance Sunday at the National Memorial Arboretum

  1. Regan says:

    It’s interesting how cultural symbols evolve and are appropriated to new circumstances, or otherwise how their meanings are lost or fade over time.

    A century is an interesting milestone in that 100 years is long enough that it’s beyond living memory, but still within reach of family recollection. For instance my maternal great-grandfather fought at Gallipoli. While he died just before my mother was born (mustard gas in the French trenches left his lungs in tatters), his life and stories still have a proximity to both of us because of what Nanna was able to tell us about him. I doubt he will have the same significance to my cousin’s two boys, who were born just after Nanna died, as they can know no living person to connect them like we did. So by the time we get to about 150 years ago, this living recollection is lost as well.

    This greater cultural distance was apparent when I was working on the interpretation of West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide – the symbolism of grave monuments would have been generally understood by 1850s society, but now is something that needs re-interpreting so that the meanings can re-emerge.

    • Thanks Regan, great comment as ever. I am sure you are right about the significance of those two milestones of ‘living memory’ and ‘family recollection’ and the story of your great-grandfather illustrates it well.

      On 26 November 2012 03:18, susancrosstellta

  2. Pingback: The Half-Life of History | Interactivate

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