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 23, 2016

Flowers and candles - what good do they do?

Floral tributes near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris 
The latest terrorist attack in Belgium has had various reactions, from predictable shock and horror, especially from those directly affected, to crowds gathered to assert their defiance against Daesh's threats. In Belgium and in Paris, and earlier in London, some have left flowers, hand-written messages and lit candles to express their sympathy with the families and friends of the dead and injured. As a friend in the funeral trade once observed, these public expressions of sympathy seemed to begin with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when fans left their club scarves and other tributes on the gates of the stadium. Now almost every tragic death, from single road accident victims to multiple murder victims, seems to be marked with an assortment of objects; flowers, soft toys, candles, and more. It's become conventional to do this, so that if a tragedy doesn't attract a roadside pile of stuff, you might be forgiven for thinking that no one cared about it. Since 2006, Twitter has enabled messages of sympathy to be posted online; the Internet equivalent of flowers and candles.

Who benefits from all this? Isn't it enough to feel sorry for those affected, without feeling obliged to demonstrate it in some way? Does it make any difference to those who are bereaved? Maybe. Maybe not. I can't help feeling that it's like a kind of emotional blackmail. If you don't join the throng, you don't care? That's plainly not true. Is it something that will gradually fade away, just as the rotting flowers do? Will all the little metal cups that held the candles float away in the rain, and the sentiment they expressed go back to where it began, in the minds of those who cared?

In today's Guardian, Anne Perkins suggests that when terror strikes, you might consider doing something useful.
The urge to solidarity is a very powerful one. It’s why humans are such a successful species. But at some point the genuine if emotional gesture can teeter over into something else altogether. It becomes another version of exhibitionism. It stops being motivated by an outward-looking desire to demonstrate collective resistance and slides into the self-absorbed projection of the individual into whatever event of the day is shocking or enthralling.
Express your sympathy by giving blood, or donate money to the Red Cross or the air ambulance that ferries the injured to hospital. If all the money that was spent on flowers, candles and cuddly toys was donated to organisations that help people affected by disaster, they'd be a lot better off.

Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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