Social memory is encoded within
Social memory is encoded within certain sites, but meaning depends upon an interpretant (such as a tourist) being able to decode the signs. Memorials, such as cemeteries, require some kind of activity by its visitors for their meanings to be activated (Hutchinson, 2009, Winter, 2010). Following Edensor (2000), the researcher has observed that tourist’s quiet and considered movements looking at graves and laying poppies are a physical performance that reflect the traditional conceptualization of battlefield visitation as a secular pilgrimage to a sacred place (Connelly, 2009, Lloyd, 1998). Tourists also write in the visitor books, and Noy (2008, p. 511) has argued that the page is “a meaning-making, interactional stage” where the act of writing is a ritual performance. This study acknowledges that the act of writing is a ritual, but it gap junction also argues that the written words have meaning, and that they may form a linguistic ritual (Bell, 2009).
Results Two practical aspects of the books probably influence the formalization of the linguistic ritual. First, the pages are ruled into columns and the space allocated for comments is quite small (90mm×12mm)—this alone would have encouraged people to write in terse and concise phrases. At Tyne Cot, as in most of the CWGC books, only a very few people use more than one line. The second aspect is that although the location of the books is unobtrusive—located in small bronze boxes in special alcoves at the entrance and within the cemetery walls, the sombreness of the site is indicated by the fact that the box also contains the cemetery records. As they wrote their comments, most people would have been in full view of the graves, and had probably walked among them.
Conclusion This study adopted the view that Tyne Cot Cemetery facilitates the performance and rehearsal of memory as ritual practice (Bell, 2009, Duncan, 1995). Tyne Cot was built by the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission, to hold the dead of the British Commonwealth countries following the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and not surprisingly, most of those who visit and write in the visitor books are from Britain and the former ‘Dominions’, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The features of Tyne Cot, including its location, massive size and large proportion of Unknown graves has also rendered it as an important site for tourists from many countries. In particular the central feature of the CWGC cemeteries is in making the sacrifice of so many young men visible, with thousands of headstones, each signifying the body of a soldier killed during the war, who lies underneath (Laqueur, 1994, Lloyd, 1998). This study of 2446 of the 4992 VBE in the Tyne Cot Cemetery visitor books identified a linguistic ritual that was characterized by a high level of formality in the written words analyzed, where five phrases accounted for over half of the total analyzed. Fifteen themes were identified that were further categorized into three overall themes, the first two of which accounted for most (95%) of the phrases. At Tyne Cot, most comments were written ‘For the Lads’, expressing a wish that cycle rest in peace, and letting them know they were remembered and not forgotten. Tourists also wrote about their own sad and moving experiences and indicated that they approved of the cemetery. These comments reflect the initial objectives of the Imperial War Graves Commission, that the cemeteries’ “appearance should sum up the emotion of the Empire after its most terrible ordeal” (Longworth, 2003, p. 127). At Tyne Cot, the site design continues to encourage a ritual that perpetuates memories of the dead, and which appears to have been remarkably stable over time. Even though there has been an increase in critique of the war in recent years, (as identified by Todman (2005) in Britain), very little such comment was found in the visitor books at Tyne Cot, suggesting that the memories of the site are relatively resistant to change. These results support Bell’s (2009), observation that ritual tends to create agreement with a situation rather than generating criticism or major change. As Winter (2010, p. 11) states, “the performance of memory is both a mnemonic device and a way in which individual memories are relived, revived, and refashioned”. In other words, as a war memorial, Tyne Cot was designed to hold social memories of the Great War within its various features. It was also designed as a place for ritual performance, the enactment of which creates and sustains memory among groups over time (Halbwachs, 1992). While museums and other sites may encourage critique of the war, the majority of comments in the visitor book analyzed at Tyne Cot focused on the “lads”, who, a century ago, were citizens, perhaps like the tourists who visit today.