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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 July, 2005, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Who are books of condolence for?
By Ben Davies
BBC News

Condolence book in London
The books are now a feature of life
Something appeared to change in the UK at about the time the Princess of Wales died.

Amid unprecedented scenes of public mourning, some commentators felt uncomfortable with the public outpouring of grief.

Or was this Britain finally casting off its uptight ways, getting in touch with its feelings and at its best - united in grief for a nationally important figure?

People mourned openly the death of a woman whom they had only really known through the telescope of media coverage and the tittle-tattle of tabloid gossip.

Up and down the country people queued up to write down their thoughts in books of condolence. Some thought it mass therapy, others mass self-indulgence.

Whatever your opinion, the book of condolence has become a feature of British life - there were such books for the Asian tsunami victims, for Soham murder victims Holly and Jessica, for the Queen Mother. Now there is one for the London bomb victims, signed by Tony Blair.

Therapeutic outlet?

Cardiff University's Dr James Thomas argues modern expressions of communal grief can be traced back to the Hillsborough disaster in which so many Liverpool fans perished.

The journalism lecturer, who wrote a book suggesting public grief over Princess Diana was seriously overplayed in the media, says there are now whole rituals of public grieving - for example the placing of flowers.

He also says the group experience of queuing for hours to sign books of condolence for the Princess of Wales was in some senses "recreating the myth of the Blitz" - the idea of togetherness in the face adversity.

Dr Thomas says there is a limit to how upset anyone can feel about people they don't know, and something rather distasteful about the media coverage of disasters, such as the repeated images of planes going in to the Twin Towers.

Policeman lays flowers
Londoners have been praised for their solidarity and stoicism
This point was made by New Yorkers at the time, who said they found the footage distressing, prompting some broadcasters to stop showing it.

Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Reddy, who has worked extensively on the effects of trauma, says that in some senses the public is responding to the fact they are cast in a central role by the media when a disaster occurs.

"After that it's a natural impulse to flag up their fellow feelings. There will be some who go over the top, who want to cry by the railings of Buckingham Palace, but it's not necessarily a big public phenomenon," said the chairman of the Independent Counselling Advisory Service.

"It's a kind of vicarious sadness - some people like being sad."

Who is this for?

But who reads the messages and who are they really for?

In the case of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman - the two girls murdered by Ian Huntley - books of condolence poured in their hundreds from all over the world.

But neither the Wells nor the Chapman families wanted these books, according to a spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council.

The volumes are now held in the authority's archive.

If people want to read them they can access them by approaching the county archive in the normal way.

In the case of the books signed for the Queen Mother, Buckingham Palace say they were handed to the Royal Family and then placed in their archive at Windsor.

This is a selection of your comments.

Condolence books and public displays of grief are simply a way for people to show that they do care about atrocities such as the London bombings. This is realistically the only way that the public can acknowledge the fact that something terrible has happened to people they don't know, they want to show their awareness of the situation and consolation for its victims.
Nichola, N. Ireland, Belfast

For a local community who are close-knit, placing flowers near the scene of a murder or violent attack, like that of Lauren Pilkington-Smith, can be a show of solidarity with the parents and friends that have suffered the loss. It can also be the fulfillment of a sense of 'involvement' that some people crave in such incidents (as described by Katie/Rachel previously). Whatever the reasons, whether healthy or not, it marks the recognition of the event. To do nothing could send the message that we just don't care..
Richard, UK

Absolutely agree with Katie from London's comments. Why does it make people feel better about a tragedy to sign a condolence book. The Queen Mother's passing was hardly tragic and yet we still had people queing to sign books??
Nigel, Croydon

Are books of condolence really any different than a two minute silence, or special services, lighting candles or anything else ? A public ritual to mark significant suffering. I agree press coverage can be distasteful but I am not sure that because something is a ritual rather than an expression of personal grief it is wrong or pointless. It is an acknowledgement that the event matters.
Frances, UK

I was going to write that I have never signed a book of condolence and never felt the need to do so. But then I remembered I left message on an internet website for a favourite writer who had recently died. I spent ages crafting my sessage, seeking the right words to show my compassion and interest of the writer's work. I looked at the other messages and thought about them reading my words. It was essentially a selfish act which made me feel good for a few moments. Soon afterwards I felt embarressed and forgot about it until now. So who are the books of condolences for? The ones that write them and the historians who analyse them in future decades.
Chris , UK

I will be signing a book of condolence tomorrow. Not to get a piece of the action, or to make myself look good. I have been genuinely upset by the events of last Thursday, even though I am not related to anyone directly involved. I want to be able to offer some words of comfort and pass on my respects to the friends and families of those affected by this tragedy, and to let them know I am thinking of them. I feel it is all I can do to help at this sad time.
Claire, Cardiff, UK

Why light a candle, why leave flowers on the road side, I think these books act as a point of focus for people to say how a particular tragedy has affected them personally. Perhaps self indulgent, but somehow knowing there are others out there that feel the same, redeems the world from feeling so grim after all.
Dan Dalton, UK

I believe that books of condolence are symbolic of the way in which our society seems to be moving. There almost seems to be a desire to be involved in events by proxy which goes way beyond simply being sympathetic and offering practical help. Scarily, I find myself telling people that my son lives a few hundred yards from Tavistock Square which gives me sense of involvement; almost as if I have an inside track on events, and I wonder why I do that. I guess we all want to be listened to and be a part of what's happening.
Rachel, UK

People feel helpless when these incidents happen and they want it to be know that they stand beside the families of the victims of terror and some people find writing a message of support and saddnes is their way of offering support to the families. We want them to know that we do care and that we are sad for their loss.
Julia, London, UK

These people signing the books just want to be able to feel like part of the drama, hence all the public weeping and wailing. It's a way of showing the world "look how much I care", and it's completely insincere. If you really care about the plight of these people, may I suggest you make a donation to the fund that has been set up to help the families.
Katie, London, UK

From this distance, being able to express my condolences for those whose family members were killed, is the only thing I can do. It is always my hope that those concerned see the written words of their fellow men as a measure of sympathy from those around them
Fiona William, United States

The relatives of the dead and missing should be free to do whatever helps them with their loss and fear, including leaving flowers or reading books of condolence. But I urge others not to buy a role in the personal tragedy of others but put their time and money to good use - perhaps understanding how our cultures have become so deeply divided and how we can find unity and peace.
Kate McGowan, SE England

I think the only point of these books is that otherwise there is nothing that the average person can do. It's not nice to feel that you're helpless, but I won't try to fool myself into thinking that signing one of these books makes any difference at all.
Ceri, Wales

I can't understand why anyone would sign a book of condolence other than to make themselves feel better; to sort of pass the buck in a way, "well, I signed the book, that shows I'm not a heartless monster". Personally, I think that there is more guilt attached to such a thing rather than grief, and these books (especially in the case of Diana) can sometimes serve to make innocent victims into perverse 'celebrity' martyrs.

It's the modern way, one has to do something. Someone's Budgie died? Get a card. Cut your finger? Expect a get well soon card.
Tony Broom, United Kingdom

This sort of thing isn't new & isn't limited to "popular" people. There were books of condolence opened for Adolf Hitler after his suicide. Irish President Eamonn De Valera shamefully signed one in the German Embassy in Dublin.
Peter , Nottingham


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