home Overview Can memorials heal the wounds?

Can memorials heal the wounds?

All images by Ana Milošević


By Ana Milošević, a researcher at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium, affiliated with the Faculty of Social Sciences and the LINES Institute (Leuven International and European Studies).


In 2014, the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg won a competition for a memorial to the victims of the Utøya massacre. The project, called Memory wound, aimed to cut an island into half to symbolise the death of 77 persons killed during the 2011 Norway attacks. But controversy beset Dahlberg’s proposal. Environmentally-friendly Norwegians opposed changes in the natural landscape. Local residents — already traumatised by the mass killings, stood against the project. “How we are supposed to heal the profound wounds”, they wondered, “with such a constant reminder of the tragedy?”

Perhaps even without knowing it, the Norwegians raised a very important and somehow forgotten question: What is the purpose of memorials?  Can memorials help the healing of the wounds or do they simply keep them open?

Memorial purpose

For better or for worse, ours is the age of memory.

Over the last three decades, the term “memory” has seen an inflationary dissemination. Some authors even warn of a memorial mania (Doss, 2010) – a sort of pathology of our modern societies. The current upsurge in the (de)construction of memorial sites revolves also around mass production and consumption of memory. On the one hand, we overproduce memory using obsessively memorial language and tools. On the other, we are terrorised by the forgetting (see Rieff, 2016), or better said the absence of memory. Not remembering or wanting to forget is associated with amnesiatic or denial state. Our infatuation with memory and memorials might be the real reason why we do not discuss anymore whether and why to memorialise but rather ponder on how.  

How we handle memorialisation often depends on who is directing the process, and importantly what role is assigned to memorials. Differently from the past that celebrated survival, resistance, victories, and heroes, our present is built on monuments that primarily commemorate trauma. The purposes of these memorials are multiple: as a form of symbolic reparations, justice for the victims, acknowledgment, tools for dealing with the past. Memorials are conceived as ethical and political promises of non-recurrence that clearly have a didactic end. They are meant to teach future generations the lessons from the past so that tragedies of the history cannot repeat again.

Bizarrely enough – we know little about memorials as a part of social and personal recovery.

It is unclear whether memorials indeed help to heal the wounds of antagonism and what is their role in the prevention of future violence. The past, after all, has its ways of coming back to life. But what we know for certain is that memorials don’t always act as a unifying force for social groups. Sometimes they can also deepen the lines of division and further lacerate the wounds inflicted by tragedy and violence.

Transitional justice experts working in the Balkans, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, or Nepal (just to name some) know this very well. While the global transitional justice fetishizes trials and truth commissions, memorialisation is often used in conflicting ways. To both promote and counter the new knowledge —or truth if you like — about the past. In the post-genocide Rwanda, the government uses the victims as a perpetual public testament to the manner of their death. In Murambi – one of six genocide museums in Rwanda, 848 preserved human corpses remain on view, years after the genocide (see Longman 2017). This macabre testimony of death is not only offensive for the victims, but utterly dehumanising – as it uses the human remains to promote political legitimacy of the current government. More than 20 years after the wars in the Balkans, memorialisation has evolved into an ethno-political instrument for nation-building and virtue signalling – a conspicuous expression of moral values. Arguably, it serves to keep the wounds alive rather than to support reconciliation and the healing process (Touquet and Milosevic, 2018).

In these and many other cases, the victims and survivors are used as a political currency. Only rarely do they have a say in the handling of the public memorialisation. As the time goes by the victims and survivors perceive memorialisation as a perpetuation of past conflict and lived trauma. The meanings of their personal tragedies and suffering are appropriated by the collective.

The untold story is that, more often than not, top-down memorialisation fails to meet the expectations of survivors in the aftermath of violence. With their grievances unattended, survivors are often creating alternative memorial spaces that will address their needs. The Monument Quilt, for instance, is one such example. It is a crowd-sourced collection of thousands of stories from survivors of rape and abuse. Using quilts to symbolically stitch their stories together, the victims are creating and using public space to heal after sexual violence. Yet, even when memorialisation is successful – that is accepted, endorsed and practiced by the survivors, it still represents only one segment of a much broader process of addressing their needs (health and care, support, poverty, reparations).

Therapeutic memorials

The proliferation of memorials in recent decades is arguably the result of an impetus to mend history and its aches, to bear witness to the suffering and tragedy. Forgotten or marginalised histories are recovered. Memorials are erected to the victims of the past as a retroactive token of recognition. Yet, not only the tragedies of the past linger in our political present. Terrorist attacks, natural and man-made disasters, are forcing us to rethink how we remember and what purposes we assign to memorials.

In Western societies, grassroots memorialisation has now become a socially accepted practice of mourning in a public space. Grassroots memorials are objects which serve as a focus for memory of something (an event) or someone (a person who has died).  Usually, they mark an untimely death and can be found in the streets, hospitals, parks, schoolyards. Numerous memorials have been created worldwide to commemorate the terrorist attacks. From 9/11 to the Toronto attacks, society itself has taken the role of a memory actor. Memorialisation is used to express solidarity and closeness, to mourn and grieve. Grassroots memorialisation, therefore, is directed towards survivors and those who perished, but also towards the society itself — seen as a victim of a collective tragedy.

Seen how widespread grassroots memorialisation is, it clearly matters to a lot of people. To the survivors, these memorials and their accompanying commemorative activism provide a certain comfort, as they demonstrate social empathy and solidarity, closeness and understanding. But the main purpose of these memorials is to address therapeutic needs of their makers – individuals and communities. In the aftermath of violence, memorialisation in a public space helps shell shocked populations to process the impact of unexpected loss and violence (see Truc 2018). As such, memorialisation helps to restore shaken bonds in the community and reassures one’s sense of security.

Yet, some people find grassroots memorials disturbing, and even false. When the tributes placed at site start deteriorating they are an eyesore for the community. Usually this is one of the main reasons to start the dismantlement of a memorial. In Nice (France) after the lorry attack on Promenade des Anglais some of the mourners used the memorial to express anger and frustration. They were spitting at the place where the attacker was shot. In Brussels, following the attacks in 2016, a small group of anti-immigrant protesters contested the public outpouring of grief. They demolished tributes accusing the mourners of false and unjustified grief— since they didn’t know the victims.

The recent terrorist attacks around Europe, however, have shown that grief transcends the sphere of personal and national. The images and stories of these memorials are replayed countless times through media forging communities around crises. Individuals and communities that did not suffer a loss have used memorialisation to express their closeness. It is through solidarity in grief that many grassroots monuments have been created in the cities and countries around the world. To remember the victims of Berlin attacks or London bombings, national landmarks such as Burj Khalifa in UEA or Tour Eiffel lit in colours of Germany and UK. Flowers and candles were left at the doorsteps of the British, Canadian or French embassies.

Limits of remembrance

What lessons can we take from these cases? Do memorials and memorialisation support personal and societal recovery?

Over the last two years, I have been studying societal reactions in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks. On 22 March 2016, two separate bombings occurred: one at the airport and other in the Maelbeek metro station.  Following the tragedy in Brussels, many memorials have emerged to commemorate 32 lost lives, and more than 300 persons that were injured ( Milošević 2018).

Differently from grassroots memorials that attract very large numbers of people, permanent memorials and annual commemorations don’t have the same emotional resonance. On the first anniversary of the attacks in Paris (2015) officials unveiled small plaques at each of the three bombing sites. One year after the attacks on the London bridge, the Tree of Healing was planted. In Brussels, a permanent memorial was created by the government at the Schuman Square.

In all of these cases, annual commemorative ceremonies followed the same script. Minutes of silence were marked, names of the victims read, wreaths laid. No political speeches were delivered on the day of commemoration, and no references to the causes of violence made. This is understandable seen how polarising and difficult the issue of terrorism and security has been. But the criticism of the victims’ families and survivors that emerged in response to top-down memorialisation of the terrorist attacks is also similar across the EU. They see a strong contrast between societal and political remembrance and want to contribute to the process of distilling the meanings and values from the tragic event and shaping the knowledge about the terrorist attacks.

In Belgium, a number of issues have been raised by the victims’ families, associations and survivors. On the one hand, the process of determining the memorial in Brussels has proven to be very divisive as it is its resolute, memorial itself. The survivors and the victims’ families, as well as some of the associations that represent them, have put forward their own views on the process. They wish to have a proactive role in the overall memorialisation process, from monument making to commemorations organising – instead of being simply the object of remembrance. This message comes across different interviews I have conducted between 2016 and 2018 with survivors from the Zaventem and Maelbeek bombings sites in Brussels.

The planning of a permanent memorial was plagued by conflicts. Massive consultations on remembrance included all levels of Belgium (very complex) government. It resulted with a plan for a memorial for all the victims of terrorist attacks (not only of the attacks in Brussels) to “allow the relatives of the victims, survivors, and citizens to gather and remember.” A call for proposals was launched already six months after the attacks and a monument ordered for a sum of 100.000 euro. Many survivors and local residents questioned the decisions of the Government, namely the cost and location of the monument. Belgian decision-makers opted to install the monument in the European Quarter, thus far from the actual places of tragedy (Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station) and certainly not in the city centre that emerged as a symbol of post-attacks remembrance.

The unveiling of the monument at Schuman Square was another moment of division and delusion for some of the survivors in Brussels. Besides its questionable aesthetics (de gustibus non disputandum est), the survivors were disappointed because the names of the victims were not engraved onto the monument. “It’s too neutral, it doesn’t communicate and it’s clearly not saying what happened and how it happened” – says one of the survivors of the Zaventem bombings. For the victims it is very hard to identify with “impersonal memorial” that offers “no reading of the tragedy.” Unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Zaventem Airport and attending the commemoration at the Maelbeek metro were also very emotional moments for the survivors and victims’ families. Every return to the site of the crime, even for the reason of commemorating, stirs up very strong feelings that some of the survivors are not ready to relive yet.

Many interviewed survivors don’t harbour any illusion that a memorial in Brussels will help the healing process, provide them some closure, or even a sort of relief. Still, they believe that having a memorial is useful to “leave a footprint of these terrible events in history.” Yet, overemphasis on memorialisation as a means of symbolic reparation and recognition is overshadowing other more pressing needs and demands of the survivors and victims’ families. The issues of reparations, access to medical care and adequate psychological support are some of their key concerns. A young girl that survived the Maelbeek metro attack told me, “commemorations are like a political memorial circus. Everyone is here to remember that day, to hold our hands and take picture. But I have to live with this by the rest of my life. I am reliving that day 365 days per year.” The role of politics, in her view, is to acknowledge their tragedy and injustice suffered by providing protection and reparation, taking care of their needs and ensuring security for the community – and to a lesser extent to commemorate.

Do we need memorials or memorials need us?

When an unexpected tragedy strikes individual and communities are shell-shocked. We feel sadness, anger, disbelief, and grief – and sometimes all at once. We mourn prematurely severed bond between the dead and the living. The questions about the healing, growth and a path to resilience come only later.

Memorials can provide a place of sanctuary for mourning, but the therapeutic purpose of memorials and remembrance should not be taken for granted. It would seem that, for the survivors of terrorist attacks, memorialisation matters more in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy and violence. It symbolises acknowledgment, societal solidarity, closeness, and empathy. It’s a sort of a sympathetic hug of a society of strangers. But when candles burn and flowers wither away, political or societal pressure to memorialise must not be forced upon the survivors and their families. Remembrance has its therapeutic limits but in order to succeed it requires that those who are left behind have the ownership of their own grief process.

Whoever suffered a loss or a tragedy, knows well that post-traumatic recovery and coping with loss needs a lot of time. There is no magic formula that can help dealing with the grief and void left by a tragedy. Psychology teaches that a road to healing goes through five stages of grief, the outcome of which is supposed to be acceptance of loss. It means being able to get a hold of the pain and acknowledging the “new” reality in which our dear ones do not reside anymore. Yet, every road to recovery is different: sometimes that road begins with remembrance, and sometimes it will depart from it. More than a right to remembrance, we must offer to the survivors the right to move forward on the path of healing and recovery. Moving forward is difficult, but it does not equal to forgetting.

Erica Doss. 2010. Memorial Mania. Chicago: University Press.
Gérôme Truc. 2018. Shell shocked. The social response to terrorist attacks. Malden: Polity Press.
David Rieff. 2016. In Praise of forgetting. Historical memory and its ironies. London: Yale University Press.
Heleen Touquet and Ana Milošević. 2018. “When Reconciliation Becomes the R-Word: Dealing with the Past in Former Yugoslavia” in Krondorfer, Bjorn (ed). Reconciliation in Global Context: Why it is Needed and How it Works. New York: CU NY.
Ana Milošević. 2018. “Historicizing the present: Brussels attacks and heritagization of spontaneous memorials.International Journal for Heritage Studies 24(1): 53-65.
Timothy Longman. 2017. Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Cambridge: University Press.

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