I am addicted to reading the inscriptions on park benches. Those on gravestones used to be my favourites – ‘I told you I was ill’ was one of the best. However, around us in Richmond graveyards are rare while benches are now commonplace. Our council even has a website setting out its rules for public ‘memorial seats’. It describes, with great precision, the wood from which they should be made, their styles, the sites available for their placement and the price range to be paid. It even outlines the procedures to be followed for their proper maintenance (Memorial Seats in Parks: Richmond.gov.uk).
The wording on benches varies enormously. On some it is terse, quasi-official and engraved on a tiny plaque. While there are others on which it is more expansive, even lyrical, with a message for passers-by composed by those close, carved in large letters on the bench itself with the key thoughts written in inverted commas. As a rule it is these ‘quotations’ that catch the eye; like tweets, they are brief and pithy.
One of the more unusual dedications has no dates and its carved message covers all three of the back rails; but then it is in Italian! The bench also serves as a shrine. Earlier this year, flowers were put in bottles by its feet, were rested in bouquets against its arms and were laid out on its seat. It was around this array that the bereaved gathered. And such use is not unique; we often see other benches freshly adorned with bouquets or ribbons. Serving as places to meet and contemplate is clearly important as, of course, it has always been for graves themselves.
It is said that the first dedicated bench was erected on North London’s Hampstead Heath in 1944. The earliest I have seen in Richmond is dated 1964, and since then their numbers have multiplied. Turn left at the bottom of our road, walk up the hill to Richmond Park and then come home by the Thames Riverside and, over the three- kilometre stretch, you will pass over two hundred benches. Alternatively, turn right and, instead, walk to and then through Kew Gardens and you will see twice that number.
While I try to read most of those we pass, my wife, Rohan, looks at rather fewer -wildlife and views interest her more. We rarely disagree about the way we interpret the sentiments expressed. Of those read, some are dull, such as the bald statement ‘Mr X, Born January 1930, died October 2013’; some are sad – ‘Baby Y Born January 2010, died October 2010’; some provoke shared memories – ‘Jane Holland, 1921 – 2004 Lost in the Asian Tsunami’; some are cheeky – ‘They could do with a bench here’; some are touching – ‘Remembering J.C.H. who was often tired’; and some are whimsical – ‘Please join me here to celebrate the view’.
Apart from sharing views with Rohan, I sometimes discuss dedications with other ‘bench spotters’ and my response to one particular message was at odds with that of almost everyone else. Although my sentiment has now changed, for several years I struggled with what was written. Indeed, I found it so annoying that, were it not for my respect both for public property and the deceased, part of me would have had it removed. The message appears on a bench in the Bluebell Woods in Kew Gardens. I see it once a year during the bluebell season. I was there again last month.
The dedication reads in full – ‘In loving memory of Pamela Seymour. 10th October 1941 – 27th October 1999. Set free to enjoy the bluebells for ever’. Some see the ‘set free’ idea as lyrical and full of hope; Pamela’s troubles, which were clearly difficult to bear, were now at an end. This I understand. It was the next assertion that I felt went too far – the hope that she will now have an easier existence ‘enjoying the bluebells for ever’. For me this made no sense. After death there is no freedom – it is the end. The idea was so totally contrary to my beliefs that somehow I took offence. But why I felt so bothered is unclear, especially when I accept other equivalent dedications, seeing them simply as whimsical.
The pithy dedications on commemorative benches fascinate me as they tell stories and gives insights that enrich. Ignoring them would be such a terrible waste. The benches clearly serve as modern-day gravestones, but with the luxury of a seat and, for me, the advantage of being without religious trappings. In that light, surely I should have been more willing to accept the poetic licence of Pamela’s bench from the start – and now I have. The fact that one inscription annoyed me, and that I have now mellowed, is a luxury of being alive.
The illustration shows the Kew bluebells as depicted in a London Underground poster.