When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Deadly litter to mark a death

Young people releasing lanterns for Jade -
Photo from the Daily Mail
The death of Jade Anderson, the Manchester girl attacked by dogs, was tragic and horrific. Her teenage friends are, apparently, marking her death with the release of fashionable sky lanterns. They've become increasingly popular for all sorts of occasions, including memorial events and weddings. So have helium balloon releases. It seems like a meaningful, harmless gesture. Whether they're meaningful is debatable, but they're certainly not harmless.

This trend for grand gestures to mark a death or deaths is something I've written about before. One of my friends in the funeral trade said that he thought it all started with the Hillsborough disaster, when people left flowers and scarves outside the gates of the stadium. Florists and soft toy retailers did very good business when Diana died, leaving London's street cleaners with a mammoth clean-up task. Since then, municipal cemeteries have had a constant battle with the proliferation of tat around graves, including plastic flowers, wind chimes and soft toys, with bereaved relatives accusing the staff of insensitivity when it's all cleared away so that the grass can be cut.

There's a difference, of course, between the mass hysteria over Diana, who was "mourned" by people who didn't know her, but thought they did, and the fashionable gestures of family and friends. I saw one ash-scattering reported online, where they'd left the cremated remains in a beauty spot (without permission) and released balloons at the same time - double-littering.

Sky lanterns and helium balloons may seem harmless, compared with unsightly soggy bears and rotten flowers, because they float off into the sky. Trouble is, they don't stay up there. They may end up miles away, in the sea or on agricultural land, where they can maim or kill valuable livestock or wildlife, after considerable suffering. For this reason, the RSPCA, the RSPB, the Marine Conservation Society and the NFU are all campaigning to have sky lanterns and balloon releases banned. In addition to the lethal littering, the helium used in balloons is a colossal waste of a gas that's needed for science; the Independent reported,
The shortage has mainly affected research centres studying the brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners, which are similar to the MRI machines used in hospitals but need to be topped up regularly with liquid helium (helium super-cooled to minus 269C, just four degrees above the lowest possible temperature, absolute zero).
When I tweeted about this, most reactions were sympathetic, such as, "Too much harm can be done without meaning to," but one follower wasn't. He wrote, "Considering what there're going thorough right now they can send up as many sky lanterns as they like," and, "The damage is utterly insignificant in comparison the death of a child." But does a death justify destructive gestures, of any sort? And are they a healthy development?

In response to my comment about the shortage of helium, another tweeter commented, "But no shortage of opportunity for mawkish celebration of tragedy it seems. What happened to quiet personal grief?" He has a point. Why do so many people feel it necessary to make such grand gestures, often involving some expense, rather than quieter, less ostentatious demonstrations of loss? Do they make them feel better? The Daily Mail, in typically crass mode, wasted no time in trawling through the Manchester area where Jade died, even photographing over the house's back yard fence, to write a report that was grossly insensitive and sensational. It featured some of Jade's friends, oblivious to the way that they were being cast as a maudlin chorus, repeating phrases that we've heard so many times before, from the vox pop phrasebook.

If I lost someone like this, I wouldn't want a media circus or a public carnival of lanterns and balloons. I'd want peace and quiet and calm, to reflect on the enormity of what had happened. If I died like this, I certainly wouldn't want part of my legacy to be the litter left by lanterns and balloons, or dead animals, or the loss of valuable assets by farmers left to clear them away.

Would you?

Read about the Marine Conservation Society's Don't Let Go campaign.

The RSPCA's Chinese lanterns petition.

A report on sky lanterns by the Women's Farming Union (pdf).

And some opinion from NFU members.


gloriamundi said...

Your views on public vs private grief are your own, of course, and I feel you're a little hard on what you call "tat," but you're entirely right about helium balloons and Chinese lanterns. Even music festivals (Cropredy comes to mind) have started banning their release, at the request of local farmers.

The comment that the damage caused by lanterns and balloons is insignificant compared to the death of a child is making a totally invalid connection - an extraordinary kind of emotional illiteracy and self-indulgence.

Margaret Nelson said...

Thanks, your thoughts are always welcome.

Angypants said...

I think you make a valid point. We all grieve in our own ways. But if our "process" involves damaging our surroundings, even unintentionally, then we would do well to find a less impactful way to mourn.

Vox waterwraps said...

Hi Margaret, Very interesting blog. Rather than letting go of balloons etc, people could perhaps consider honour blooms. I have recently launch a website about them and would love your opinion. It's about connecting people via mother nature. Living in the present, remembering and honouring those in our past. The web site is www.honourbloom.org Thanks in advance for your time. Daphne Cozens

Margaret Nelson said...

Daphne, I hesitated before approving your comment as, strictly speaking, it's spam. Flowers may be a less environmentally damaging way to mark a death, but only if they're grown ethically - for example, imported through a fair trade scheme, and without the use of harmful chemicals.

When a close relative died, she'd requested that all the mourners at her funeral should be given a gerbera (her favourite flower), but this was partly due to her desire to manipulate other people's reactions to her death. I didn't feel that it helped.

Having different coloured flowers for the different months of the year is a marketing ploy, and fairly meaningless. As for wearing a flower on the anniversary of someone's death; it's a matter of personal choice, of course, but a close friend who's lost several friends and relatives, including a daughter, rejects the idea of marking the anniversary of any of their deaths. She feels that we remember people spontaneously, at different times and for different reasons, and don't need to do anything so formal. I agree.