BEL MOONEY: This Covid memorial will be a place of pilgrimage to ensure nobody is forgotten
Make no mistake, the commemorative space planned within the ancient, hallowed walls of St Paul’s Cathedral to honour all those lost, directly or indirectly, to the coronavirus pandemic, is destined to become an important place of pilgrimage.
Indeed, what better way to focus our grief and to reflect on what we have all endured over this past momentous year than to be able to visit a dedicated national memorial.
It will take the form of a new entrance – a spectacular oak portico engraved with the words Remember Me – to the cathedral, and at least four screens showing the book of remembrance installed in the Middlesex Chapel.
When I read on Saturday about the Remember Me campaign, launched by the Mail to support a £2.3million fundraising appeal by St Paul’s Cathedral Foundation to build the portico, I went straight to the crowdfunder site to make my donation – just as so many of our wonderful, generous readers have done.
This is a rare chance to do our bit for all of us – and for history. Private remembrance is endless but the point about a national site is that it becomes a shared destination.
The commemorative space planned within St Paul’s Cathedral to honour all those lost to the coronavirus pandemic is destined to become an important place of pilgrimage
The urge to remember and to acknowledge the sorrow of others is a vital aspect of our humanity, and to make a pilgrimage to achieve that obeys a deeply-rooted human impulse.
For thousands of years people all over the world have made special journeys to sacred locations.
A pilgrimage is a transformative journey and the act of travelling meaningful.
One of the most beautiful places in Britain is the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire where 300,000 people visit the military service memorials.
There are other memorials there too – more than 350 in all – including the beautiful secluded garden where visitors place stones bearing the names of their stillborn children.
It may seem strange that people should make a day out of travelling to a place that commemorates death – but anyone who has been there will know how serene and joyful it is. A place of hope.
The whole site proclaims that all lives matter. Yes, even those poor young men shot by their officers for desertion during World War One. Nobody is forgotten.
Names engraved on stone or bronze are more than just words. They represent living, breathing souls who loved and were loved.
Likewise the Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the hundreds of commemorative monuments, statues and plaques around in villages, towns and cities across the UK all draw visitors who wish to bow their heads in respect. To be serious and reflect on life and death. To give thanks. And of course, to mourn.
On four trips I have made to the World War One battlefields of Northern France and Belgium, I’ve watched people contemplating the names of long-dead men to whom they have no connection and seen them shed tears of compassion.
Others may be searching for the name of a great-great uncle, and will leave a little letter.
Twice I have stood before the mighty Thiepval Memorial to 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battles of the Somme and studied the solemn faces of schoolchildren as they try to understand the enormity of sacrifice and death.
Then I shut my eyes and seemed to hear the voices of the dead cry ‘Remember Me!’
And those are the simple but eternally powerful words – inscribed in different languages – that will greet visitors and be the focal point of the planned memorial in St Paul’s. When we visit memorials, we are sharing in the everlasting suffering not only of loved ones but also of strangers.
The sheer numbers of the dead can be overwhelming – and at the height of the pandemic the effect of the news each night was numbing.
As T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ And yet we must bear it. A memorial site reminds us of real people, not statistics. And the effect of reading the names of others is a further reminder that mortality affects us all.
In the words of John Donne, the great 17th century Dean of St Paul’s: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Those who will pass through the revolving door to enter the new oak portico in the North Transept of St Paul’s will leave the everyday world behind and be part of a shared experience. So let us help build this special place.
Let us remember that the presence of the grief of others is the thread that unites us all – and that is the message this special, sacred place will carry forward to future generations.
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