Millions of us will commemorate the 101st anniversary of the end of the First World War as part of today’s Remembrance Sunday memorial events around the world. In these divided and antagonistic times, the opportunity to pay our respects to fallen heroes feels ever more precious, a gift commanding our most conscientious guardianship.
But who are the real people we’re honouring? And are their identities fading or sharpening with time? Beyond the indelible imprint left by our own British Tommy, we’re starting to learn more about our less well-recognised communities of heroes – for example the two million Muslim soldiers and labourers around the globe who volunteered to fight in a European war that was not of their making.
The campaign Remember Together was set up last year – in a collaboration between the Royal British Legion and British Future – to bring together people from different backgrounds and to learn and commemorate our shared history. This year, its particular focus in schools and local communities will be on remembering how Britain and its allies in the Commonwealth, the US and the free armies of Europe fought side by side in the Second World War, many making the ultimate sacrifice.
Another organisation – The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation – has managed to trace and identify more than 850,000 previously undiscovered, personal documents related to the Allied Muslim contingent that didn’t make it home. These include accounts of Muslim, Christian and Jewish soldiers fighting united, side-by-side; sharing their experiences and accommodating each other’s cultures, music, gastronomy and religious practices – regardless of unimaginable living conditions.
The Foundation draws attention to the honourable ways in which chaplains, priests, rabbis and imams went out of their way to learn Arabic, Hebrew, English and French so that they could accommodate religious burials of the dead on the battle front.
At last count, people of minority faiths accounted for more than 8% of the UK population – a figure that the American thinktank the Pew Research Center predicts will have doubled by 2050. So diversification of remembrance in today’s era is about more than just the pervasive waning of Christianity and the parallel growth of an alternative, personal spirituality. While the proportion of us claiming to have no religious affiliation continues to rise, so too does the percentage aligned to other faiths.
Legacy Foresight has recently conducted some fascinating research into the different rituals and traditions around bereavement and remembrance observed by these diverse groups. We highlighted that Hindu and Sikh funerals, for example, can be huge, with attendance by family, friends and acquaintances considered even more important than it is for weddings. For Jewish people – for whom honouring the dead and comforting the mourner are two important Commandments – funerals and mourning are simple and traditional, making collection envelopes inappropriate. But donations to honour loved ones are commonplace at later dates – including on the anniversary of their death (Yahrzeit), and accompanying memorial prayers on certain Jewish holidays (Yizkor).
For in-memory fundraisers, this should be another wake-up call about not taking the continuation of the long-established, broadly Christian, faith-based funeral for granted. Like kindness, camaraderie and humanity, the underlying motivations for giving in-memory are universal. But in reality, practices, awareness and ability to give vary enormously by community. For we all belong to many overlapping communities: communities of interest, of geography, of experience and of faith.
As charities we need actively to acknowledge the differences amongst our supporters, taking our time and starting from the point of genuine two-way engagement. It will be a great first step if we can abandon the idea of a cookie cutter approach to in-memory fundraising and acknowledge diversity in the same way that we acknowledge commonality.
As Hayyan Ayaz Bhabha, Executive Director of the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation asks – if soldiers could accept and accommodate each other so profoundly amid the horror of the trenches, what’s stopping us from doing the same today?
If you would like to find out more about Legacy Foresight’s research into the different faith groups and their cultures of giving, as presented at this year’s Fundraising Convention, request a copy here.
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