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Ways of remembering: dying and the family archive

9 May 2015

laura-king-212x300By Laura King, University of Leeds

Why do we try to preserve particular memories? What exactly is valuable in the process of keeping and ‘curating’ particular objects and documents that we might understand to constitute a family archive? For whose benefit is this?

Some people find great pleasure in collecting particular information and items related to their family history. For others, things reminding them of past pleasures are an important source of wellbeing and important for a sense of identity. Still others have a keen sense of the need to keep personal and family belongings in order to pass on to future generations, whether these items are of financial or sentimental value. One only has to look at the popularity of family history as a hobby, or television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and the Antiques Roadshow to see evidence of all of these aspects of family memory.

4386651_2aa4f479The things we collect and keep can also have a more melancholy purpose, though. In my last post, I mentioned how the death of a relative or friend can be a break in the process of family archiving, a rupture at which there are decisions to be made about what is valuable or otherwise. But the process of archiving and collecting also relates to dying in another way. The things we keep can be a crucial way in which we remember someone dear to us who has died. In my first post, I mentioned the autobiography of Evelyn Cowan. Evelyn writes of her mother, whose only ‘keepsake’ of her own mother was a cameo brooch brought out for special family occasions. In the wearing of this brooch, perhaps Evelyn’s mother sought to create a connection between her daughter’s wedding and her mother, despite her death. Keeping and using the objects of dead loved ones can be a way to keep them alive in some shape or form. This is of course often done through the transferring of not only financial assets but also very personal possessions in individual wills.

Another way in which individuals have sought to keep the memories of dead relatives alive is through the writing of an autobiography. In some ways, autobiographical writing can be understood as about living, about youth, particularly as writers often focus to a great extent on their childhood. But these documents are often written later on in life. The process of reflecting back and narrating one’s own life, and that of family members and friends, can be a way of facing one’s own mortality; by highlighting achievements and creating a record of a life lived for posterity’s sake. It can also function as a tribute to those who have died in the past.

This could certainly be said of the autobiographical writing of the author, Ralph Finn. Ralph grew up in Aldgate, East London. Having published No Tears for Aldgate in 1963, he followed this up with Spring in Aldgate in 1968. This second book is framed in tribute to his mother, who had recently died. In the dedication, he wrote that readers had commented about his mother’s relative absence in No Tears in Aldgate. He explained that this was because she was still alive, which meant he felt little need to discuss her in detail. Spring in Aldgate, in contrast, is dedicated ‘To my mother whose memory will never die’.

Indeed, Spring in Aldgate is a tribute to a number of other loved family members and close friends. For Ralph Finn, it seems it was his dead relatives and friends who he felt he must discuss in most detail. He created vivid portraits of various important characters in his life who had passed away. Discussing the deaths of his brother-in-law and sister for example, Dave and Lily, he wrote an explicit tribute. He reproduced in full an article he wrote in response to Dave’s death, entitled ‘They live though they have died’. After many pages discussing their, in his words, ‘tremendous love’ and the energy with which they had lived life, he concluded:

Dave and Lily’s son is the image of his father, the same man reborn. A little more sedate perhaps, a little less given to wild laughter, but on looks the same. And I never see him without seeing Dave or remembering Lily.

Dave had his tribute. And this has been Lily’s. Now she is at sleep with yesterday’s seven thousand years. I could not weep when she died. I was numb. Now I can weep for her.

If my tears be unavailing let my heart a chalice be.

In this research, therefore, I am using autobiographies in two different ways. They are packed full of fascinating information about family life, about what people kept and what it meant. But they are not just sources of information. An autobiography is a means of family archiving in itself. Autobiographies must be understood as an artefact or example of family archiving in themselves as well as a source of information. One question this raises is the different ways in which men and women contribute to family archives, and indeed write autobiographies. My research thus far perhaps hints at a slightly different focus, of female family archivists and autobiographers. Women seem to be a little more focused on families and relationships, with their male counterparts discussing in more depth their individual lives, or focusing in their archiving practices on friends and their public life as much or more than their families. Will the evidence bear this out? Is this reflective of the fact that historically women’s lives and work have been more orientated around home and family than men? Or perhaps even a different approach to keeping and valuing ‘archives’?



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