12 August 2007

Flower power

Commemorating the dead is a task for the living - a truism, but one worth repeating. As often as not the way we react to death in our midst is guided by the dread hand of maudlin journalism; the visual shorthand for grief and loss is flowers tied to railings at the scene of a private tragedy become public. It is the personal rendered impersonal by so many reproductions in hackneyed news reports. In turn, we have been conditioned to create these displays at the prompting of too many lazy TV reports on the latest senseless loss of life at a roadside, street corner, school gate or housing estate.

The acme of such tendencies was obviously the death of Princess Diana, where a veritable swamp of flowers laid by the public threatened to overwhelm Kensington Palace and cause a world shortage of cellophane. The effect of this nationalised, ostentatious grieving was almost oppressive, smothering any other reaction in a self-righteous, directionless rage; what The Guardian called "the fascism of flowers", that stymied any sensible debate by the sheer volume of bouquets.

A bathetic example of this phenomenon occured in 2005, where flowers were laid in response to the discovery of a supposed human foetus in an alley in Liverpool, which turned out to be raw chicken (story: click here). The same media outlets who had wept crocodile tears in 1997 for Diana, and watched their circulations rise, poured scorn upon this other public response, superciliously attributing it to the laughably self-pitying nature of Scousers.

Last December, in Ipswich, several prostitutes were murdered, and their bodies dumped in surrounding villages. In a slow news week, the media got excited once the body count had reached three, culminating in the BBC 10 o'clock news reporting live from East Anglia at the height of the manhunt. On the way to my parents-in-law I drive past the site where the first body was discovered - a river near a processing plant in Copdock. Although Huw Edwards and his team have since moved on to report on newer corpses, to this day, every time I drive past, fresh flowers are tied to the railings of the bridge.

This is a genuine, simple act of remembrance, not a media driven griefathon to entertain the masses before chasing the next ambulance. And incredibly moving with it. It actually raises the spirit that, as human beings, we haven't completely surrendered proper commemoration to another branch of the entertainment industry. And that flowers themselves, as symbols of remembrance, haven't been stripped of their power to stand for something meaningful.

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