John Schauble from the Fire Commissioners Office, and ex Age journalist has penned a very thoughtful piece about remembrance. In it he poses the question about whether events such as Black Saturday should be remembered. It is a must read article.
This is a very interesting question. Anne Eyre has written extensively on commemoration 9check out her chapter in the Handbook of Disaster Research) . She, like John, warns of memorial services and memorials being hijacked to serve political purposes. Memorials and services must be community centred and controlled.
We tend to see with the first memorial service after a major disaster, the protocol unit of a Premier’s Department take charge, and thus it becomes a political event. It is important for the community to demonstrate solidarity, and come together to support those affected. But it must sensitive. I’ve written previously about the horror of the Bali Memorial service. When the Boxing Day Tsunami happened, there wasn’t a huge interest from the Premier’s Department in a state memorial service (although strangely enough there was for the 9/11). This suited us as we asked the Victorian Council of Churches to arrange one, and it was a terrific, sensitive multi-faith service, in Federation Square in Melbourne. Whatever people think about religion, they know how to commemorate.
I contrast the first anniversary of the Bali Bombings, where I was invited to the federal service, held in the Great Hall of Parliament House, run by the defence forces chaplain, who led a service heavily laden with government rhetoric. The Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition were on stage, and the state premiers were in the front row, then the families. I heard from people in the know, that a number of the politicians were none too happy about being relegated to the back rows. It was excruciating, and a space where you didn’t feel comfortable. The Victorian service was a much simpler affair. While we (in government) took control of organising it, it was very much a collaborative affair, with the council of churches providing a lot of input, and a committee of people affected. It was a secular service. There was no media. It was still held in a beautiful church. The governor, John Landy, and the Premier Steve Bracks said a few words, but the rest was the families. Martin Flanagan finished off the proceedings with some of his thoughtful words. IT was space in which you felt comforted and supported.
Strathewen have very much taken control of their commemoration. The memorial service is a very low key affair, a few words, a song or two, reading of the names of those no longer with them, then they head back to the sport pavilion for a cup of tea and sandwich. Last night’s was beautiful, and simple. They even debate whether they should have formal services, or whether they should just turn up on the day.
It was interesting that John mentioned Robert Kenny’s reaction to the discussions around memorials. My experience of the memorial process at Strathewen is that we were able to engage everyone, that people who were profoundly affected, losing family members, homes, friends drove the memorial process. I think this was the difference. They owned the process from the start, so it wasn’t seen as a local council driven process (which I believe from many areas, including Robert’s was fraught, as it was seen as something that had to be done). Locals could talk to locals about what they felt. Time was also taken. A lot of time. And what we didn’t start out with, what’s it going to look like. We started out by shaping the narrative of Strathewen, and how that might be reflected. Narrative shaping is very important as it contributes to sense-making and meaning making. As John points out in his article, the danger is that the narrative is hijacked or shaped for other purposes, and particularly to promulgate myths.
Probably the most profound ceremony for me was the third anniversary of Black Saturday where the sole surviving member of a family, herself badly burned in the fires, turned the first sod on their memorial site, surrounded by the community. There was no ceremony. There didn’t need to be. Actions, they say, are sometimes more powerful than words.