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Is a drug death memorial a dubious idea?

A proposed public memorial to those who died from a hard drug overdose wouldn't do any harm but smacks of creating an edgy amenity for inner city residents

Victoria and Lennox streets, Richmond

Earlier this month, the City of Yarra voted to erect a memorial on the corner of Lennox and Victoria streets in inner city Richmond to honour “the hundreds of people who have died from heroin overdoses in the Victoria Street precinct”.

Not everyone is happy. The Age reports that socialist councillor Stephen Jolly reckons it’s “tokenism of the worst kind” (see ‘Monumentally stupid’: Richmond locals furious at planned overdose memorial):

I don’t think putting a plaque at what is ground zero for heroin and ice use in that part of the city is the right plan when what we desperately need is actual reform on drug issues. This is just a thought bubble for the Greens. It smacks of the kind of thing that Yarra loves doing.

The Age doesn’t expand on the rationale for the proposed memorial, but I expect it would be similar to the logic underlying this temporary Anti-Memorial to Heroin Overdose Victims installed in St Kilda:

In the year 2000, 331 people in Victoria died of a drug overdose. Those people would have typically remained nameless in the public realm, a group that society preferred not to acknowledge or mourn. Inspired by the fundamental question of ‘who do we select as worthy of memorials?’, SueAnne Ware decided to humanise those people and bring their deaths into the public domain with an installation on some of St Kilda’s busy streets.

I think there are number of pertinent points to be made here, both for and against:

  • There’re lots of public memorials in cities and towns, mostly monuments and place names associated with events, especially wars. But not all; for example, there’s a public memorial in Carlton for the victims of the 2002 Bali bombing and a Memorial Garden at Port Arthur.
  • While it’s true a memorial would do nothing to address the key causes of overdoses or to mitigate the risk, it probably wouldn’t do any harm either. Attacking the problem and acknowledging those who died are separate issues.
  • Very few overdose victims go “unacknowledged” or “unmourned” by the people they mattered most to – family and friends who grieve for their loss. They knew each victim personally, not as a faceless member of an aggregation. Their personal sorrow and care is orders of magnitude more important than being acknowledged on a plaque.
  • Almost everybody who dies remains “nameless in the public realm”. As far as I’m aware, there’s no public memorial to the thousands who die prematurely from blastomas every year, or from hundreds of other causes, including disease, violence and suicide. We seem to want to memorialise tragic events rather than tragic causes; moreover, virtually everyone who dies is honoured privately.
  • Not everyone wants their loved ones acknowledged in a public memorial. There was a push some years ago to erect a public memorial for the Victorian victims of the Port Arthur killings, but almost all families rejected the idea, preferring some form of private tribute. It’s reasonable to believe that when a grieving family is consulted about establishing a public memorial yet rejects the idea, it may be because it causes them further heartache rather than provides solace. Will the City of Yarra consult the victims’ families?
  • Memorials don’t inevitably “humanise” those they seek to acknowledge. That’s a huge challenge and almost all fail on this score, even those that name every victim (a logistical challenge in itself); those that succeed are few and far between (see also: Designing memorials: is simple and subtle the best way?).

There’s a wider question here I’ve touched on before about the purpose and benefits of memorials, but I don’t think it matters much in a practical sense whether this particular memorial goes ahead or not. I see that currently 85% of the 6,000 odd readers who so far have chosen to respond to The Age’s online survey reckon the idea is “monumentally stupid“.

My perhaps cynical suspicion is that advocates of the memorial are more concerned – I assume unconsciously – with what it signifies about them than what it means for those who grieve for lost loved ones. The gentrifiers of Yarra are close to romanticising the tragedy of hard drug use to fit their preferred image of Richmond as a place that signals grittiness and edginess, seasoned with outsiders. Hard drug use, suitably sanitised of course, is effectively treated as a neighbourhood amenity.

If the City of Yarra wants to do something substantial on this issue, it should stop thinking in terms of memorials (or, worse, street art). It might consider a marketing campaign directed at changing attitudes to safe injecting rooms. That would probably be mostly influence and media-based, but could include something physical e.g. a billboard on a main transport artery showing the year-to-date hard drug death toll.

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3 thoughts on “Is a drug death memorial a dubious idea?

  1. Marcus WongW

    As part of the new railway station at St Albans the Victorian Government erected a memorial to people who lost their lives at level crossings in Victoria:

    https://twitter.com/levelcrossings/status/876696057614397440

  2. Itsumishi

    Hard drug use, suitably sanitised of course, is effectively treated as a neighbourhood amenity.

    To put this more politely than I’d like to, this is bullshit Alan. The scale of the heroin epidemic in the Richmond/Abbotsford area is not providing any “amenity” to anyone. Visit the corner of Lennox and Victoria on a Thursday afternoon and it’s hardly pleasant. Dealing openly (or at least very unsubtly) happening on the street; people “on the nod” all over the place; syringes scattered; and quite regularly people shooting up in full view of the public. I say this as someone who spends plenty of time in Richmond and loves Victoria Street.

    I agree the idea of a memorial won’t solve anything, and I like the idea of the Council pushing harder for a safe-injecting facility; but to be fair on the Council, they’ve been advocating for a safe-injecting room for about 2 decades. The state government is the problem.

    I’ve been writing to Jill Hennessey (Minister for Health and Ambulance Services), Martin Foley, Daniel Andrews and my local MP for months now. So far I’ve received only two responses, both from Jill Hennessey’s Chief of Staff.

    Dear Mx xxxx
    I refer to your correspondence received by the Hon Jill Hennessy MP, Minister for Health and Minister for Ambulance Services, regarding his correspondence regarding safe injecting facilities being referred.

    As this matter falls within the portfolio responsibility of the Minister for Mental Health, Martin Foley MP, I have referred your correspondence to his office for his consideration.

    Should you require further information regarding your correspondence, please contact the Office of the Minister for Mental Health on 03 9096 7500.

    Yours sincerely

    Chris McDermott
    Chief of Staff
    Office of the Minister for Health
    Office of the Minister for Ambulance Services

    A health issue that has claimed about 35-40 deaths a year (in Richmond alone) the last few years and requires hundreds of ambulance call outs each year doesn’t fall under the portfolio for the Minister for Health and Ambulance Services!!!?? Pathetic buck-passing at its worst. Hennessey should hang her head in shame.

    Meanwhile Martin Foley won’t even respond to acknowledge whether he believes the issue falls within his portfolio…

    1. Alan Davies

      Itsumishi, I’m specifically referring to the proposed memorial as the thing that would come close to effectively treating drug use as an amenity i.e. not the fact of open dealing/injecting. But there are some inner city residents in my experience who simultaneously bemoan open dealing/injecting while nevertheless getting some reputational utility from living in an “edgy” neighbourhood.