The moving stories behind memorial park bench inscriptions

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For 18 months Stephen Emms wrote a Time Out column on the singular tales behind park benches. We republish The Times Magazine feature that kicked it off

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In their celebration of life and transience, bench dedications reflect the subtle colours of enduring happiness. Photos by Stephen Emms
In their celebration of life and transience, bench dedications reflect the subtle colours of enduring happiness. Photos by Stephen Emms
Like many addicts, it started with a single line. Except, in my case, it was on a bench, a little way off the main path on Hampstead Heath.

I suppose I’d dabbled before, often glancing at a name – an Ethel Campbell or a Dorothy Rather – and spending a moment creating a backstory. Sometimes it was easy, with Ethel, for example, being a “vegetarian, socialist, pacifist”. Sometimes it was hard: Dorothy Rather may have “fed the birds”, but was that her life, I’d wonder; was that it?

One morning in May I had a stronger hit. Dragged across the Heath’s dense network of paths by the mutt, I stumbled across the king of memorial benches. It said, in upper case: “‘THEY COULD DO WITH A BENCH HERE’, LEWIS GREIFER 1915 – 2003”. I was hooked: seven stark words conveying character, humour – and utility. It was almost a haiku.

"They Could Do With A Bench Here" Lewis Greifer
“They Could Do With A Bench Here” Lewis Greifer 1915 – 2003

I spent the rest of that day scouring the Heath for benches, taking pictures. In their reduction of a life to a line, the dedications were funny, touching, aspirational, literary, even didactic. Many were a Greek chorus expressing sentiments previously unspoken: “Take one day, rest a while, and pretend the world is just for you”, “Live life as a monument to your soul”. Others offered transcendence: “May this bench bring peace to all who rest on it.” And humour was sometimes light – “I don’t do walks, please be seated” – and sometimes dark: “For Mr Jo and His Dogs. Dead, Gloriously Dead!”

For Ben Weinreb whilst he can still sit on it (1912 – ?? ), Hampstead Heath. Photograph: Stephen Emms
For Ben Weinreb whilst he can still sit on it (1912 – ?? ), Hampstead Heath
Professions (particularly actors and pilots) were popular, most spectacularly the multi-tasking “artist, dancer, potter, traveller, analyst and lover of trees.” And sadly, more than a handful were dedicated to children: “A very special child, who played and walked on the heath during her short life, missed and loved by many, 1981 – 87.”

Single names intrigued me most. They seemed to combine a breathy intimacy with cold impersonality: who on earth was Marianne? Who the devil were Tom and Lee?

I’d probably never know so, deciding to broaden my investigation, looked to the coast for inspiration. In Deal, Kent (where our third tale is set) I discovered that many of the benches along the seafront had corresponding maritime themes: there was the woman remembered against the “ever changing sea and sky”, and the man who, rather bleakly, “turned on his side and slowly drowned.” Further afield, in Wales, just by the castle of Llanstephan in Camarthen, one says: “He loved the sea, and it claimed him.”

You might think this a very British tradition, but, over the pond – from Boston in New England to Edmonton, California – benches are big business too, although one suspects that our taste for humour, subversion and wood may have been replaced by recycled plastic numbers (at $250!) with prosaic inscripted plaques – not quite the snapshots of life they are here. And the practice hasn’t spread as far as Japan: a journalist from Tokyo recently filed a story from Deal on this curious phenomenon.

So can anyone get a bench? It depends where you are. Whilst even speaking to the right department of the councils in Newcastle and Birmingham is nigh impossible, in Bristol or Manchester it’s an easy acquisition, with a choice of locations, whereas down in Deal there are just a couple of locations free (up towards Walmer, if you’re interested), with prices generally around £1000 (although in Caerphilly, Wales it’s a snip at £612).

Mr Jo And His Dogs. Dead Goriously Dead
For Mr Jo And His Dogs. “Dead Gloriously Dead”, Hampstead Heath

And spare a thought for the eighty souls in purgatorial wait for remembrance on the Heath, all hoping that one of its 475 benches will (happily?) be available soon. “Dozens will be freed up at the end of next year,” says an official, “following a ten year cycle that was introduced in 1997 to cope with demand.” A decade’s lease may not seem much, but at least it includes maintenance, compared with the two meagre years offered by Dover District Council in Deal.

And when did it all start? The oldest “top rail” on Hampstead Heath, now archived, dates back to just 1944. According to English Heritage’s Jenifer White, however, there are benches in existence in Patterdale (Lake District) that celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee (1897), and even one dating as far back as 1881 in the Isle Of Wight: “This shows that the idea in itself was at least current then,” she says, “and post-first world war cemetery aesthetics as well as the development of remembrance gardens must have stimulated ideas for other forms of memorialisation.”

My father, a historian, believes they could even date back as far as the Great Exhibition (1851), or at least the open air movement, led by the National Trust in the late 19th century, which saved open spaces for the public. He adds: “The outdoor memorial as a secular retreat from churches may have been adopted by the free thinkers of the day such as Darwin and Huxley – and much later, George Bernard Shaw.”

Memorial to the Unknown Husband, South Bank
Memorial to the Unknown Husband, South Bank
This would also explain why now, in our secular times, the cult of the memorial bench is at its zenith. It could be said that, like the laying of flowers, it is simply another example of the popularity explosion of public statements of private grief, the legacy of Diana’s death. But the combination of emotive ellipsis with the utilitarian and aesthetic qualities of the wood creates a quiet poetry: the opposite of today’s throwaway culture.

It’s certainly a subject that continues to arouse discussion, particularly in Scotland. “It’s so inappropriate”, says one blogger, “it’s another one of those fads. Death is not in itself an achievement. I say keep mountains clutter-free.” But isolated benches, such as the McElligots’ (their story is on page 3), carved to blend in with their environment, provide both a literal and metaphorical platform for us to consider our own mortality – which, as any late Eighteenth century poet would tell you, was the reason for the popularity of the mountains in the first place.

In their celebration, then, of life and transience, dedications in fact reflect the subtle colours of enduring happiness, within all our reach, perhaps nearer than we thought. And if we are all striving for happiness, a memorial bench, when we’re gone – which is always too early – is like a bus stop en route.

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They Could Do With A Bench Here

"They Could Do With A Bench Here" Nan Greifer, (Photo: 2006)
“They Could Do With A Bench Here” Lewis Greifer 1915-2003. Photo of widow Nan Greifer, September 2006
A renowned TV scriptwriter during the golden age of British television from the mid 1950s to the late 1970s, London-born Lewis Greifer’s work included two of the greatest shows of all time: The Prisoner and Dr Who. He was also a true lover of Hampstead Heath, not just because of its beauty, but because, according to his son Josh, it belongs to the people. “My father was municipally minded, a committed socialist.”

For the last fifteen years of his life, following a stroke, Lewis had a bad leg and lungs, and couldn’t walk far without sitting and resting. Each bench encountered would become a marker. On walks near Kenwood House, the family would often hear him say, as he stood leaning on his cane, catching his breath, “they could do with a bench here”, “a sotto voce suggestion to the Parks Authority”, as Josh succinctly puts it.

“I felt it was the best way to remember him,” says his widow Nan, who is Polish. “He didn’t want a stone somewhere and to be buried among strangers. I was offered this spot by the authorities, which was overgrown with brambles, so I came over with my gardening bits and cleared it in an afternoon. I was very excited: this is exactly the place he would have liked. We meet here regularly but on the anniversary we drink vodka, we celebrate. He loved life.”

“He took immense pleasure in living, even after his stroke,” says daughter-in-law Mish, “he taught himself how to eat, how to write with his left hand, he was always seeing the latest films. He was the first to say, ‘what a beautiful day’. He savoured every moment.”

Filming the interview for BBC1's One Show, September 2013
Nan and son Josh filming the interview for BBC1’s One Show, September 2013
Lewis, with his acute writer’s eye, was a huge fan of the stories behind dedications. “He was interested in the way that lives were told in this incredibly succinct line,” says Josh, “including one in particular: “To our son B. Patel, B.Sc B”, clearly from parents proud of their young man’s academic achievement, even if his life was tragically cut short.”

This belief in the power of stories was also behind Greifer’s love of football: “He saw it as a story of struggle,” says Josh. “He’d always watch a game – in fact it was an overriding passion that was a key to his life. He would often compare football to socialism.”

But behind the interest in human stories was also an enthusiasm for the utility of benches. “My dad attested to that in his final years,” says Josh.

“Benches are about functionality: they need to be used. Unlike a gravestone, a bench shows that somehow you’re still part of the world, you have a purpose and a function.”

Nan loves seeing people on the bench. “I saw a young man asleep with his rucksack on recently, lying here. I like seeing it used.”

Whilst the Greifers are not a religious family, Nan says they are sticklers for traditions. “Lewis died on the 18th of the month so every 18th I visit the bench. Sometimes I think of a very sad Verdi opera we once watched together. Lewis wasn’t emotional – we were both very private people – but on that one occasion we were sitting there crying, and that’s how I remember him, because it was the end of his life. Two weeks later he died. It was the only time in nearly 50 years that I saw him cry.”

“You know what?” she says, “I just thought of that again now.”

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In memory of Hannah’s love of the mountain.
May her spirit ride free

“In memory of Hannah’s love of the mountain. May her spirit ride free. HRH McElligott 1984 – 2005” L-R Bobbie, Jonny, Gilly McElligott (Photo: Stephen Emms, 2006)
“In memory of Hannah’s love of the mountain. May her spirit ride free. HRH McElligott 1984 – 2005”
L-R Bobbie, Jonny, Gilly McElligott (Photo: Stephen Emms, 2006)
“She loved working with kids on the mountains,” says musician Gilly McElligott of his daughter, Hannah, who tragically took her own life in 2005. “They’d chant, “we want Hannah, we want Hannah”. The weather can be fierce up here, but she’d always keep the kids smiling, playing silly games and making them ski like a rabbit, ski like a deer, ski like a leprechaun…”

Hannah, who was 21, had just completed a foundation year in art at Central St Martins – but was also one of the youngest qualified skiing instructors in BASI [British Association of Snowsport Instructors]. “After it happened,” says her mother Bobbie, “BASI approached us about a memorial bench. They liaised with the Cairngorm Mountain and even funded the bench.”

“We used the word ride in the inscription because she was a snowboarder as well,” says their son Jonny.

The bench went up in May this year, just over twelve months after she died. “It blends in with the landscape and has an almost mystical feel,” says Bobbie. ”The first time we came there were twelve of us and we had strawberries and champagne.”

“She would have loved the fact that we were opening Bolly for her,” laughs Gilly.

Bobbie looks across the mountain: “A week before she died she ran into my bedroom and said, ‘I love you Mum, I love you’ and I hang on to that, I don’t think she had plans to do it at that point I really don’t – ”

“But with the edge of hindsight you remember details that you wouldn’t otherwise,” says Jonny, “like the way she smoked and drank because she knew she didn’t want to live any longer, the way she wore caps in the house so people couldn’t look into her eyes.”

During Hannah’s final months, medication for her depression seemed to be having severe consequences. “She used to say, ‘I can’t laugh, I can’t think anymore,’” says Jonny, “she’d say she’d lost her soul, the devil had stolen her soul.”

“Hannah shouldn’t have had any drugs at all,” says Bobbie, “but we don’t blame anyone, we don’t blame ourselves, we don’t feel any shame because at the time everyone was genuinely doing their best to help her.”

On the day of her death, Hannah was due to play the whistle onstage with Gilly at the local pub. “The last time I saw her alive she blew me a kiss,” he says. “I still wish I’d made her play with me that day.”

Hannah had also arranged to pick her mother up in the car from work at half past five. “She didn’t arrive, so my daughter-in-law gave me a life home, and that’s when I found her, in the loft, “Bobbie says quietly. “I’m glad it was me though. I was in shock but I wasn’t panicking. I was calm as you like. She was warm, she was soft – it wasn’t like a dead person. I wasn’t hysterical. I was doing mouth to mouth, and it wasn’t working. I knew she was dead but still continued doing it. It was really strange; part of you doesn’t believe it’s happening.”

Jonny arrived soon after. “I went blank,” he says. “Seeing her there was like any other time except you’re not used to seeing that person stay still. You think they’ll flinch but they don’t and that’s when reality hits.”

Gilly’s mobile had been switched off whilst he was performing. “I finally got the call in the pub and when I got back Bobbie was already sitting down and going through everything with the police; I don’t know how she did it.” He shakes his head. “I was like a zombie, pacing, walking around.”

There’s a pause. “It’s what she could have done, what she could have been, that’s what cracks me up,” says Bobbie. “It’s the little triggers that do it, like when the info arrived through the post on her course that was meant to start in September. But I know, when I get upset, that it doesn’t last forever.”

“We don’t wallow,” says Jonny. “Even now, when you go in the house, it’s like you’re getting a hug from Hannah.” He smiles.

“She was a wonderful girl,” concludes Gilly, “When I go, I want my ashes to be scattered from her bench.”

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In Loving Memory of Mum & Dad Evans

“In Loving Memory of Mum & Dad Evans, January 3 1979.” L-R Bryan Evans, Michel Roh
“In Loving Memory of Mum & Dad Evans, January 3 1979.” L-R Bryan Evans, Michel Roh (Photo: Stephen Emms, 2006)
“We weren’t into graves but wanted somewhere we could go, and something we could look at now and again,” says Bryan Evans, 75, of the decision to dedicate a bench to his parents outside the library in Deal, Kent. “They were keen readers – her favourite book was Lorna Doone, his was The Cruel Sea – and so it seemed the obvious choice.”

Mum and Dad – otherwise known as Anne and Bob Evans – grew up opposite each other in London’s East End before marrying in 1925. The family’s “comfortable lower middle class” life was shattered one evening in 1953, when the twenty-two year old Bryan announced he was moving in with his male lover. “We didn’t speak for six months after that,” Bryan remembers, “out of sadness really. Dad just didn’t have the vocabulary to argue.”

A few years later, in 1960, Bryan met Michel at a gay dinner party in Finsbury Park, and this time whisked him straight home to meet the folks. “They approved of me straight away,” laughs Michel Roh, 68. “Dad, a man of few words, said he could see that between Bryan and I there was something deep, something safe.”

Bryan was working in publishing in Hampstead, whilst Michel was in the restaurant trade in Earls Court, but by 1966 the pair had decided to leave London and buy a guesthouse in Deal. A couple of years later, Mum and Dad followed suit. “They wanted to be with us. They weren’t too fussed about the sea. We wanted the sea and they wanted us, in a strange way.”

And were they known in Deal simply as Mum and Dad? “Always,” says Bryan. “It all started in our guesthouse which was like a big club, with people calling by for tea or a drink and Mum doing the ironing, or washing up. Mum loved giving dinner parties – hors d’oeuvres, salad, coleslaw, boiled eggs, prawns, roll mop. We always called them Mum and Dad in front of our guests and the names stuck. They were known as Mum and Dad to everyone.”

However, after their deaths (Dad in 1975, Mum in 1978), Dover District Council weren’t too keen on the boys’ choice of dedication. “It seemed everybody had to conform and Mum and Dad stood out as a bit common or different,” says Bryan. “I said forget it, but finally the Council came back to us and said yes.”

“This was 1979, remember,” says Michel, “the beginning of the benches in Deal. There weren’t too many, and those that were there were plain.”

“Nowadays of course they ask you which spot along the seafront you’d like,” says Michel. “They never said that to us – in those days they mostly put them up round public places. It was all very pragmatic: the library had just been built and needed benches outside.”

And where would they have their own benches? “On the seafront definitely,” says Bryan. He looks at Michel. “For you I’d have something about Switzerland – a drawing of a mountain perhaps.”

“On yours I’d have I’m missing you Bryan,” says Michel, “and the dates of our years together.”

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Read more? Click on our Bench Tales section here.

A version of this feature was published in the Times Saturday Magazine, December 2006. Stephen Emms talks about the subject on the One Show on BBC1 on October 23 at 7pm

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  • Jonathan

    Great piece, there is a lovely bench towards the northern end of Deal beach which reads “The Deal air ain’t done me no favours”. What a gift to be able crack a joke that lives on after you and brings a smile to a stranger every time I read it.

    • Kentishtowner

      Ah yes, I know it well. A brilliant inscription.

  • Alana

    Just seen the item on ‘the one show’ tonight and it brought a tear to my eye. What a wonderful story. We had a stillborn son called George and had a bench put in in his graveyard as there was no bench to sit on when visiting his grave. So many people have commented on how wonderful it is to now have somewhere to sit when visiting their loved ones.
    It is inscribed with ‘ we’ve tied our love to the brightest star and given it your name’
    Every bench tells a different story of love and memories and I thought your work was wonderful.