November is a month for remembering. On 1st November, All Saints’ Day, the Church remembers the past heroes of the faith. 2nd November, All Souls’ Day, is an opportunity to remember departed loved ones. 11th November, Remembrance Day, is time to pause and give thanks for those who have died in the service of their country. Remembering is important: the way we remember can liberate us into the future or enslave us in the past.
In the heart of England is the National Memorial Arboretum. Set in 150 acres of woodland, the Arboretum is UK’s Centre of Remembrance and it exemplifies a different way of remembering. The Arboretum, which was only opened in 2001, hosts memorials to a range of organisations including military, civil services (police, ambulance, fire and rescue), charities and other organisations, both at home and overseas. At the heart of the site is the Armed Forces Memorial which lists the names of all those who have died in service since the end of the Second World War, around 16,000 women and men. There are two sculptures which, in a very moving way, bear silent witness to the cost of armed sacrifice. One depicts a mother and child holding each other and an elderly couple clutching each other in grief, weeping over their husband, father and son whose body is being carried by his comrades. The other depicts a woman and some Gurkha soldiers preparing a fallen warrior for burial – a figure before double doors points to a world beyond where the warrior will rest as another figure chisels the name on the memorial.
There is nothing triumphalist about the way the National Memorial Arboretum remembers those who have lost their lives in the service of their country. One group is not regarded as inferior or superior to the other. War is not glorified, but, regardless of whether it can be justified, war’s cruelty, injustices and sheer inhumanity are themes playing not far below the surface. The Arboretum ‘remembers’ war as a place where heroes are to be found but not as a place of glory, for, if it were a place of glory that would be a justification of all the killing. Above all, the National Arboretum is a place where the nation thanks families for giving their loved ones in the service of their country.
What is distinctive about the National Memorial Arboretum is the way of remembering. It remembers in a spirit of humility and thanksgiving: while remembering the departed, it is expressing the nation’s gratitude to their families. It is not scape-goating, recalling the bitterness and demonising an enemy, placing on them all the blame for the death and destruction. Such a way of remembering effectively keeps the war raging in the present and will lead to further conflict and fuel the urge for vengeance. The Arboretum’s way of remembering recognises that all parties need to share some of the responsibility for the failures that led to war and so the focus is not on the enemy or even the victory over the enemy but on a thanksgiving for the sacrifices of those who died. Such ways of remembering enable people to move forward towards reconciliation.
Whether we are remembering the saints, our loved ones or those who died in the service of the country, the way we remember is crucial. Our remembering can enslave us in the past – or liberate us into the future.