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

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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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