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Remember Me and the National Covid Memorial Wall: Memorials for a Society in Flux?

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By David Tollerton


On 27 July 2022 a new memorial to the coronavirus pandemic was opened in St Paul’s Cathedral in central London. Entitled ‘Remember Me’, it consists of a new entranceway on the north side of the cathedral, leading to a small wooden vestibule which opens out to the Middlesex Chapel where four touchscreens show images of the deceased along with short written messages from the bereaved. The material displayed on the touchscreens is drawn from an online version of Remember Me established by St Paul’s in the early days of the pandemic.


In form, Remember Me is wholly different from the vast National Covid Memorial Wall that exists a short distance away on the south bank of the Thames. Approximately a third of a mile in length and made up of individually painted red hearts (as well as personal messages subsequently added by the bereaved), it has become one of the iconic visual symbols of Britain’s experience of COVID-19. The two memorials can nonetheless be usefully considered together, not simply because of their comparative forms, but because of how they resonate with distinct political and socio-religious identities.


A useful starting point is to note that Remember Me and the National Covid Memorial Wall both are, and are not, national memorials.


The wall may be national in the sense of visually representing (in principle) every life lost from COVID-19 in the UK and it exists in dialogue with the UK parliament that meets directly across the water from its location. But it is not ‘national’ if we understand that term as involving state agency. It was created without official sanction and indeed represents – at least in part – a form of protest against the government's handling of the pandemic.


St Paul’s does not claim that Remember Me is a national memorial site but its backers sometimes have. When the cathedral partnered with the Daily Mail to raise funds for the site, the newspaper told its readers that ‘there are no other current plans for a national memorial’ and in the House of Commons Boris Johnson remarked: ‘There is a solemn duty on our whole United Kingdom to come together and cherish the memories of all those who have been lost […] and I wholeheartedly support the plan for a Memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral, which will provide a fitting place of reflection in the heart of our capital.'


In the same speech, the Prime Minister did briefly refer to being ‘deeply moved’ by the National Covid Memorial Wall but his government’s relationship with the wall has been strained. He was accused of visiting it after dark to avoid having to answer potentially embarassing questions, has been recurrently criticised by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group that organised the memorial’s creation and despite appeals to make it permanent the government has so far resisted such calls.


Remember Me, by contrast, is a more comfortable initiative for the state. Studiously non-political, its organisers even made sure that the messages left by the bereaved – now displayed on touchscreens in the Middlesex Chapel – feature no criticism of public figures or organisations.   


These are thus memorials with very different politics – something reflected by their media backers. While St Paul’s partnered with the right-leaning and pro-government Daily Mail, the National Covid Memorial Wall has been championed by the left-leaning Guardian.  


Interconnected with their differing political locations, the two memorials are also situated in distinct ways in relation to socio-religious identity.


While the organisers of Remember Me have insisted that it is a memorial ‘open to people of all faiths and none’, the privileging of Christianity is obvious through its very location. In the Middlesex Chapel, those looking up from the touchscreens face a space for contemplation and prayer fronted by a large golden cross placed upon a risen altar. The connection with politics lies in a well-attested, but often overlooked, feature of contemporary British society: that the older you are, the more likely you are to vote Conservative, self-define as Christian, and believe that the UK is fundamentally Christian in character. It is not coincidental that Conservative politicians over the last decade have repeatedly described ‘British values’ as Christian values that need to be protected from secularism.


For this constituency, it is perhaps quite natural to believe that St Paul’s is the appropriate place to memorialise COVID-19. That the cathedral is also associated with national resistance during the Blitz only adds to its resonance for older generations among whom Britishness is bound up with public memory of the Second World War.









The National Covid Memorial Wall is quite different. Among the personal messages hand-written along its length, relatively few have overt religious content and, despite endorsement from some prominent faith leaders, the memorial exists as a secular endeavour. This is not to say that it is entirely non-spiritual. When I interviewed Fran Hall, a volunteer and media spokesperson for the wall, she described it as a ‘sacred’ space and a site of ‘pilgrimage’ for bereaved families. In this sense it may be considered what anthropologist Sylvia Grider refers to as a ‘spontaneous shrine’ created for public mourning. But if regarded as a form of shrine, it is one with no traditional religious affiliation and is, in that sense, well suited for the spiritual-secular fluidity increasingly characteristic of Britain’s younger generations.  


Of course, the risk with such analysis is that it makes things too simple: if you are older, Christian, think Britain is a Christian country, vote Conservative, and read the Daily Mail, then Remember Me is for you; if you are younger, secular, emphasise multiculturalism, dislike like the Conservatives, and read The Guardian, head to the National Covid Memorial Wall. Obviously things are not really so neat. As soon as you get to the level of individuals, the Venn diagrams of identity and ideology become messier and more unpredictable.


But I suggest it is nonetheless useful to think through why we now have two very different quasi-national COVID-19 memorials a short walk from one another in central London, and what their existence and forms say about political, social and religious divisions in contemporary Britain. We might conclude that the creation of multiple memorials is no bad thing – in short, that different spaces of mourning suit the needs of different people. And yet we may also be wary of memorialising the pandemic in a manner that simply reinscribes existing divisions.

David Tollerton is Associate Professor in Memory Studies at the University of Exeter. He recently ran a research project on emerging British memorialisation of COVID-19 funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The final project report is available here. His most recent book is Holocaust Memory and Britain’s Religious-Secular Landscape, published with Routledge in 2020.

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