A fine monument to bad taste

It is a truly horrid thing, the Harrods shrine, as unappealing as the taste for conspiracy theories
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The Independent Culture
THE REPORT of Gordon Brown's memorial committee for Diana, Princess of Wales has now recommended five schemes to commemorate her very public life. They range from a memorial garden outside her palace in Kensington Gardens to a pounds 5 coin engraved with her image that we can all carry round in our pockets. But what about Dodi Fayed, who died with her in that car crash in Paris?

The thought of his life - less publicised, except in its last few weeks - came to mind the other day in Harrods, when I came face to face with a curious and memorable installation at the foot of the Egyptian escalator. Mohamed Al Fayed has strong emotions about the violent death of his son. Mr Fayed is also a person about whose character one may hold certain not- very-complimentary opinions. Nevertheless, he is entitled to express strong emotions about his son's death.

It is worth remembering this when you see the shrine that has been put up in Harrods. On a marble table, two laminated photographs in rather flimsy gold frames, one of the Princess and one of Dodi Fayed. You are kept back from this little shrine, but you can see that the two vases of flowers are in fact fake. The candles, on the other hand, are real. There is a collection box and a copperplate notice inviting donations to an Al Fayed charitable fund, and some people have left flowers. When I was there, there was even a little poem about the King and Queen of All Our Hearts.

I think we can all agree to admire Mohamed Al Fayed's good sense in not wasting money that the charitable foundation could use by having, say, real flowers. But other than this, we can hardly do anything but gawp at this amazing construction, tastefully placed not actually in a department, next to the Y-fronts or the computer games, but more neutrally, between the Men's Designer Basement and the money-making souvenirs of Harrods Shop.

There is a senselessness and a lack of dignity about monuments of any sort, but they have the appalling sincerity of the intensely felt. No one would put up pictures of his dead son in his shop just to drum up a bit of custom, of course, so we must assume that the shrine at the foot of the Egyptian escalator represents a good deal of feeling.

And in a way, even the cheapest and most awful of monuments to the dead is witness to a profound human belief: a sense that there ought to be some reason why people die, a sense that you ought to do everything to explain it, to perpetuate a memory, to fight against oblivion.

Monuments, in a previous age, were often decried on principle. The 17th- century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, thinking them contradictory to Christian beliefs, said that "to subsist in lasting Monuments, to live in their productions, to exist in their names ... was large satisfaction unto old expections." In other words, once we get a glimpse of the Christian eternity, we won't bother with worrying about an earthly posterity.

But I don't think we really believe this any more. Earthly posterity is all there is; fame is all there is; a photograph on a marble table in a department store is the best we can seriously hope for. And, my goodness, how we cling to it, putting up our monuments, mourning the anniversaries of deaths, mounting our charities in memory of dead people we never met. Because we want an explanation.

The old explanation for brutal and sudden death has gone, and now we want to keep the faces of the dead alive, in tasteless and embarrassing shrines at the bottom of escalators, in books of remembrance. Unable to accept that people die for no reason, that our lives have only the meaning we choose to find in them, that our deaths may have no sense whatsoever, we are far too prone to believe that a sad life was deliberately prevented from reaching its potential, that a tragic and random death was carefully plotted.

"Oh look," an American matron was observing, with no apparent irony, as I was standing there. "Isn't that sad." Yes, terribly sad, to have your son killed and have no way of expressing feeling than to destroy your own dignity in a hundred awful ways. It is a truly horrid thing, the Harrods shrine, as unappealing as Mr Fayed's taste for proliferating conspiracy theories, as his firm public belief that someone, somewhere was to blame when things went wrong.

But, to be honest, the kindest thing any of us can do is to come to the conclusion that, despite all appearances, he must be suffering. From the revolting gilt-and-marble monument, the loudly aired conspiracy theories, the artificial flowers, all we can do is to avert our eyes, and make a serious and respectful effort not to laugh.