Matt Voigts, UCL Digital Anthropology
In January 2013, the London Underground marked 150 years of operation; the world’s oldest subterranean railway, it shares the space below street-level with bricked-over rivers, sewers (the two being often quite similar, if not the same), wires, pipes, ruins of eras past and the dead. Two centuries of habitation leave a lot of dead, buried in cemeteries and plague pits, marked and unmarked. At King’s Cross-St. Pancras Station, currently (as ever) in the midst of renovations, previous expansions in 1864 and 2004 necessitated, respectively, the displacement and re-interment of 10-15,000 and 5,000 graves (Arnold 2006, pp.172-173). The roads at the Station’s street level, however, also negotiate the transportation desires of the living with the material memory of the dead, as it did back to the naming of the area.
On October 3, 2011 – not long after I moved to the neighborhood while I studied Digital Anthropology at University College London –Ming Joo “Deep” Lee, a Central St. Martin’s student on her way to the school’s new campus, was struck by a lorry and killed at the intersection outside King’s Cross. Over the nine months I lived there, almost daily I walked passed the white bicycle that was set at the accident site – originally on a traffic island, and which moved in the summer to the side on Gray’s Inn Road (where it remains) while the island was resurfaced. The intersection still has no bike lanes, while the present construction project is in the midst of leveling the 1973 overhang (a prominent fixture while I lived there) to create a larger outdoor walking square in front of the Station.
Since at least the early 1980s, mementos of the deceased – commonly: letters, flowers, personal items, plush toys – have been placed at the sites of unexpected death, intersected at mourning ritual, personal feeling, public display, and social action (Margay and Sanchez-Carretero, 2011). Often called ‘grassroots’, ‘roadside’, or ‘spontaneous’ memorials, Haney, Leimer, and Lowery (1997) list seven traits the memorials tend to share, among them that they may be remembrances of those who were not involved in the midst of the mourning ritual, and are not constrained by typical periods of grief. Clark and Franzmann (2006: 579) root the authority to claim and sacrify the secular space of the roadside in “the overwhelming empowerment of grief; the belief that the presence of the deceased can be felt and recognized; and the understanding that the place where life was lost is a special place for memorialization.” Reid and Reid (2001, p.348) suggest that such memorials typically stay as long as they are maintained.
Lee’s “Ghost Bike,” one of several in London, memorialize as well as call attention to the dangers automobiles pose to cyclists. The white bicycles first appeared in St. Louis in 2003, and since have surfaced in 30 cities worldwide (Dobler 2011: 169), the material manifestation of a practice “largely spread through word of mouth via Internet message boards” (173). As with MySpace, also discussed by Dobler (2009), “the public nature of these memorials allows anyone to mourn; the rights of grieving are not restricted to immediate friends and family” (178). From conversations with those involved in the bike’s installation (traced in upcoming links), I found that the memorial was initiated by individuals who did not know the deceased, used by her friends as a site of mourning, and discussed on the Internet by politically-active cyclists as a call to action for greater infrastructural safety for cyclists. For a comparison, note the simple plaque inside the station that commemorates the 31 dead of the King’s Cross Fire of 18 November, 1987 – straightforward, officially placed, and a site of commemoration as well as controversy with regard to Transport for London’s actions.
In my experience in London, while many Underground stations take their names from the surrounding area, to simply say the name (as in, “meet me at Euston / Goodge Street / Stratford / wherever”) is to imply the Tube itself, so associated is the transportation with its surrounding area. In the case of King’s Cross, the area took its name from a short-lived memorial statue to George IV (who died in 1830), which sat atop a police station at the junction of the streets that are today named York Way, Gray’s Inn Road, Euston Road, and Pentonville Road. While the space at and around the junction may have changed (compare a 2000 map with Charles Booth’s poverty map from 1898), the location is comparable to where Lee’s Ghost Bike sat for the 2011-12 school year.
The George IV memorial – little-loved and obfuscatory – was torn down in 1845, though Stephen Geary, the architect behind the building and statue, found greater success with the London Cemetery Company (founded 1836), which would create many of London’s elaborate suburban cemeteries, including Highgate (Arnold: 136-138).
Arnold’s book, Necropolis, in part discusses the shift from burials in crowded urban churches, churchyards, and plague pits, toward a desire for greater, more hygienic, material separation between the living and dead. It wasn’t just the dead, however, that were moving further from the city center: the Underground facilitated greater connection for the city and its metropolitan area.
When – last fall – I moved to Forest Gate, I found myself surrounded by park land and cemeteries located just beyond Stratford station and the Olympic Park, built for the event that helped spur other recent upgrade prioritizations to London’s transportation system. In the future, bikes and tubes may converge with the SkyCycle project, which – if implemented – would connect London’s train stations with elevated bike paths, adding a new dimension to transport in the city further above the ground, its dead, and their memorials.
Arnold, C., 2006. Necropolis: London and its dead. Simon & Schuster: London.
Clark, J., and Franzmann, M., 2006. “Authority from grief, presence and place in the making of roadside memorials.” Death Studies. 30:6, 579-599
Dobler, R.T., 2011. “Ghost Bikes: Memorialization and Protest on City Streets.” Grassroots memorials: the politics of memorializing tragic death. Eds. Peter Jan Margay and Christina Sanchez-Carretero. Berghahn Books: Oxford.
Dobler, R.T., 2009. “Ghosts in the Machine: Mourning the MySpace Dead. Folklore and the Internet. Ed. Trevor J Blank; Utah State UP: Logan, Utah
Doss, E., 2006. Spontaneous memorials and contemporary modes of mourning in America. Material Religion, 2(3), pp.294-318.
Everett, H., 2000. Roadside crosses and memorial complexes in Texas. Folklore, 111 (1), pp 91-103.
Haney C.A. , Leimer C., and Lowery, J., 1997. “Spontaneous memorialization: violent death and emerging mourning ritual.” Omega 35 (2), pp. 159-71.
Margay, P. J., and Sanchez-Carrretro, 2011. Grassroots Memorials: The Politics of Memorializing Tragic Death. Berghahn Books: Oxford.
Reid, J.K., and Reid, C.L., 2001. “A cross marks the spot: a study of roadside death memorials in Texas and Oklahoma,” Death Studies, 25(4), pp. 341-356.
Source for Picture of George IV: ‘Plate 83: King’s Cross. Memorial to George IV.’, Survey of London: volume 24: The parish of St Pancras part 4: King’s Cross Neighbourhood (1952), pp. 83. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=65662&strquery=King’s Cross Date accessed: 06 February 2013