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War memorials and commemoration
War memorials and commemoration

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5 Function of a memorial

We could, of course, extend this notion of appropriateness into other forms of civic building. If I had asked you to consider your local town hall, shopping centre or supermarket, we could have asked many of the same questions about function and appropriateness. We expect a shopping centre to be organised so that shopping and spending money are easy. If it is not well organised, we might go elsewhere. We expect civic offices to be accessible and central to the area they serve; and we are annoyed if this is not so.

But these functions are self-evident, arising directly from their purpose, in an unambiguous way. We are not much concerned about the meanings they demonstrate (except possibly the knowledge that a shopping centre demonstrates commercial aspects of life, and the spending of money). I suspect, however, that you agree with me that the appropriateness of form and function for a war memorial is a little different, and it is to the question of why this should be so that we now turn.

Exercise 5

What function do you think a war memorial has?

Again, make a list in response to this seemingly obvious question, and try to do so before reading on to my own list below.


My list may be different from yours, though I would be surprised if we did not have some points in common. Here is my list for you to think about and relate to your own. In my view, we have war memorials to provide

  • a public record of names of those who died

  • a local record of loss

  • a focus for personal remembrance

  • a focus for civic commemoration

  • a religious commemoration for loss of life

  • a public record of gratitude for sacrifice.

Whatever our lists, I think that we can reach agreement about most of these functions. This agreement may not be a simple one, for how we perceive a war memorial may depend on our own personal circumstances and the beliefs we hold. We may have lost a relative or friend in war. We may have strong Christian belief, or none at all; we may have a belief in another faith. We may have direct experience of war, or it may not have touched us. We may hold pacifist views and refuse to accept the necessity of any war.

I am conscious that in my own response I ignored the notion of conquering, and of winning battles; and I'm also aware that the thought of a general loss of human life was uppermost in my mind.

Exercise 6

Can you decide what was uppermost in your mind when you constructed your list? Stop for a moment and jot down your thoughts in your notebook so that you can refer to them during my discussion.


Perhaps you made the point that when we think about the function of a war memorial, we draw on our own knowledge and experience. We may recognise its significance in a highly personal way, or we may feel detached from it. When I looked at ‘my’ memorial, I saw a column and a cross, and that was how I recognised it as a memorial. The form of the memorial is what I saw, and one function of the design of the memorial was to alert me to its being a war memorial. So both the form and the function of it held a meaning, and I responded to that. I can say that I have a personal perception of the memorial and its meaning. Form and function together conveyed a meaning to me.