John Menadue. What does it mean?

We have all been moved by the outpouring of grief and emotion by the deaths in Martin Place, the school children killed in Peshawar and eight children murdered in Cairns. The flood of floral tributes has been remarkable. We saw it only a few days earlier with the untimely death of Phillip Hughes. There was an even more remarkable outpouring with the death of Princess Di in 1997.

But what does our response mean? How do we interpret these events?

Let me try.

We all have brokenness, loss and grief in our lives that so often we suppress. The recent public tributes are a means to release some of this personal anxiety we all have. In a sense it is almost a public therapy for something we don’t really understand but need to express about our own lives. There is something deep within each us that breaks through,unbidden, to the surface.

We need ceremonies and rituals to help us express our grief. Sometimes those ceremonies and rituals are formal memorial services in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a shrine. But for many an informal ‘memorial service’ with massed flowers shows the same purpose. It is a way of expressing both our grief and our respect. Ceremonies to mark death, like other ceremonies in our life, are very important milestones.

We particularly respond to untimely deaths, particularly of children. They are lives of great or unknown potential that are cut short. These untimely deaths remind us of the fragility of life. Though we try to manage and organise our lives to limit risk and the unknown, the fact remains that there is a fragility and mystery about human life that is beyond our understanding.

Perhaps in such public memorial services we are determined to show that evil will not triumph. We are determined to show that goodness and generosity, despite our shortcomings, is part of each of us and is essential in any decent society.

In these informal declarations of respect and support, we are also asserting that human relationships are more important than economic prosperity and success. In effect we are saying that there is a dimension to our lives that is more important than the material.

Perhaps we are also saying that the human person is precious and valuable. Some would say that it is sacred, that we all have a touch of the divine and when we plumb our humanity we will find the divine.

In our daily lives, dying has become different. In the extended family the death of grandparents and the viewing of the body were common place. Our parents wore mourning clothes. With our nuclear family, much of that has changed. Death is so often transferred to the hospital where doctors and nurses are in charge. We have removed death from the common place. Something is lost.

In the memorial of dying we want to hang on to a place, a cemetery, a war memorial or a road-side cross that can be the focus of grief. That is why we are likely to see a memorial erected in Martin Place and perhaps in Cairns. Like ceremonies, markers are needed in our lives.

The mystery of life and death will always be with us. That is what these floral tributes say to me.


John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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2 Responses to John Menadue. What does it mean?

  1. Avatar Wayne McMillan says:

    I believe John has hit the nail right on the head. To me all life is sacred. Human life has that vital life force within it that could be described as divine. Life is a mystery and we all need a ceremony to make sense of it.

  2. Avatar Michael D.Breen says:

    You tried as you said and did it well, John. Two matters arise for me, firstly the ways in which ceremonies and ritual hold a space for us and a series of acts which take us through the emotions and meanings we experience surrounding pain or a major event and link us to a broader world, our people and our history. Secondly, like the saw about remembering where we were when we heard John Kennedy had died, places and individual contributions are now more spontaneous, local and common. Semi formal roadside shrines rank alongside cenotaphs. They are in a sense the monuments of the little people, done in our own ways, ways which have meanings to us and our links with the deceased. “This marks the spot where he/she left this life, it is special”.
    Faced with death we enjoy the most uncomfortable of feelings; helplessness. Rituals give us something to do. But the practise of relegating death to hospitals means it is harder to develop a relationship with it.

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