Memorials for drug overdose victims create a place for grieving and inclusion

Memorials serve important social, political and spatial functions that go well beyond personal or collective mourning. In doing so, the design and location of a memorial can be just as important as its subject.

Originally published on The Conversation – 6 October

Australian cities are inherently diverse places, but that diversity can lead to conflict between different values about what cities should and can be. Our series, Conflict in the City, brings together urban researchers to examine some of these tensions and consider how cities are governed and for whom.

The vibrant spaces of cities are rich in social, artistic and political possibilities. They are also increasingly commodified and controlled. Police, private security guards, surveillance cameras and “defensive architecture” all make some groups feel more welcome, secure and valued than others.

Public memorials are one way to accord more value, visibility and respect to the most marginalised and excluded groups. Installations honouring the deaths of Indigenous people,homeless people, sex workers, queers, activists and drug users can now be found in cities around the world.

Such memorials serve important social, political and spatial functions that go well beyond personal or collective mourning. In doing so, the design and location of a memorial can be just as important as its subject.

Harm Reduction Victoria’s recent Overdose Memorial Day installation, in central Melbourne, and Sue Anne-Ware’s earlier Anti-Memorial to Heroin Overdose Victims, in nearby St Kilda, are good examples. Both show how public memorials might not only shift who we consider worth grieving, but also encourage us to reflect on the nature of memory, urban space and the ethics of social relations.

A life ungrievable?

Globally, hundreds of thousands of people die from drug overdose every year. Australia recorded 1,137 deaths in 2014, down from 1,739 in 1999, but trending up again from 993 in 2013 and 705 in 2004.

More than 40% of Australians have used illicit drugs at some point. Despite this, it remains a heavily stigmatised activity. This is particularly so for those who take drugs excessively, use on the streets, are homeless, have mental health issues, or are marginalised in other ways.

Rather than treat problematic drug use as a health and welfare issue, current prohibitionist policies mean such drug users are usually regarded, first and foremost, as criminal.

School drug education and public health campaigns often mobilise stigma as a deterrent, positioning drug users as irrational, dirty, diseased and dangerous. Problematic drug use is presented as a fault of character or willpower, rather than a result of personal trauma or broader sociopolitical forces.

These representations, frequently reinforced by news media, do little to foster empathy for people who use drugs. Indeed, visible signs of drug use tend to produce fear and disgust in other city users.

When someone’s death is linked to their drug use, therefore, they are less likely to be afforded “ideal victim” status. Their life becomes less “grievable”.

The stigma and shame mean those who are mourning can be reluctant to acknowledge the drug use. Drug-using friends are sometimes excluded from funeral services, or miss out because their transient lifestyle means news of the death does not reach them in time.

Stigma also increases the risk of overdose itself, by reducing the likelihood that people experiencing problems with drugs will seek treatment. It also encourages rushed drug use in more secluded spaces, discourages friends from seeking help and deters passers-by from assisting.

How might overdose memorials help?

In the laneways and alcoves of Melbourne, where many overdose deaths have occurred, informal memorial sitessometimes appear. Flowers, cards, memorabilia and graffitied messages mark the place someone’s friend, child, sibling, parent, client or colleague was lost.

Although fleeting, these memorials are significant. They give those mourning a place to locate their grief. And they inscribe that grief in the fabric of city space.

Drawing inspiration from these unofficial memorials, as well as a growing international literature on “counter-memory”, Ware’s 2001 Anti-Memorial to Heroin Overdose was designed to challenge not only who is remembered, but how they are remembered.

Ware placed a series of obituaries to overdose victims along three key thoroughfares in St Kilda, a Melbourne suburb known for its bayside bohemian culture and street-based drug use and sex work. Each was stencilled on the footpath in red paint, alongside a resin plaque embedded with personal memorabilia and red poppies growing in a planter box.

Most traditional memorials and monuments encourage visitors to stand back and look up at statues on plinths, or names and dates inscribed in stone. Most are static and permanent. They tell visitors who to remember and how to remember them, and create a sense that remembrance is complete.

The “Anti-Memorial” was different. It worked to unsettle them, prompting them to move differently and feel differently about drug use, memory and urban space. Instead of simply telling people who and how to remember, it encouraged them to look down, to stop, to read and touch, to think and feel.

The poppies gradually came into bloom, then died away. The resin plaques and planter boxes were removed and the red words slowly faded from view.

By its temporary nature, the “Anti-Memorial” drew attention to everyday processes of urban erasure, and to the need to engage with and rethink issues of drug use and marginalisation.

A graffiti memorial

Although simpler in design and execution, Harm Reduction Victoria’s graffiti installation can also be understood as a counter-memorial.

Five local graffiti artists were commissioned to paint the words “Overdose Awareness Day” on the wall of a narrow alley, just off the heavily commodified Bourke Street Mall. The names of overdose victims are embedded within the text.

Vulnerable to the effects of sun, wind and rain, as well maintenance workers and other graffiti writers, the memorial is unstable and temporary. Designed to be stumbled upon and viewed at close range, it challenges us to engage more viscerally with remembrance and the politics of city space.

Melbourne’s graffiti and laneways have long been paradoxical entities. They are simultaneously denigrated as dirty and criminal and celebrated as central to the inner city’s hip, edgy identity. Both enable more democratic forms of communication than legitimised or privatised forums permit. Yet both remain subject to forces of policing and gentrification.

Given graffiti’s ubiquity in Melbourne, it is unlikely the Overdose Awareness Day memorial will unsettle or provoke many passers-by. Its positioning in a narrow lane and obscure graf-style text also limit its reach.

However, its form and location encourage those who do notice it to reflect on and challenge how drug users and other marginalised groups are treated in our cities.

Reminders of humanity

These memorials don’t tell us explicitly how to think about overdose deaths. Nor do they overtly show how the criminalisation and stigmatisation of drug users make such deaths more likely.

But by humanising drug users, and sending a powerful message about their social worth, they can increase empathy and reduce stigma and fear. Such shifts would likely improve outcomes for other drug users.

Public memorials are political as well as personal interventions. They can elevate marginalised bodies to the status of grievable. Those that also creatively unsettle our very relationships to memory and space will do even more to challenge marginalisation and exclusion in cities.

You can read other Conflict in the City articles here.

  • Header image: The names of overdose victims are embedded within the words ‘Overdose Awareness Day’ in Harm Reduction Victoria’s recent memorial in Union Lane, Melbourne. Peta Malins, Author provided.