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One Year On: Memorials and what they say about us, by Peter Stanford

Is it the flowers that people remember? Banks and banks of them outside Kensington Palace; individual stems thrown in the path of her coffin and later her hearse; even wreaths delivered to buildings by charities with whom Diana, Princess of Wales, had been associated. Twelve months after her death, the florists are gearing up for a repeat performance of an act of remembrance, albeit on an inevitably diminished scale.

The flowers were, it was suggested at the time, a sign that Britain was becoming more Mediterranean and Catholic, less buttoned-up in its reaction to death. Perhaps our foreign holidays had given us a taste for the gaudy roadside death shrines that line even the most insignificant of French, Spanish and Italian highways. Or perhaps it was the minor tidal wave of converts, rushing to take the Pope's shilling, who were altering the British way of death. Or perhaps - and this is a pet theory of the novelist and historian, Peter Ackroyd - the "neo-Catholic" reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales revealed a "buried Catholic sensibility or culture" on these shores. It is largely below the surface, he said, but can be glimpsed in our appetite for spectacle, display and ritual. "If you think about it, England was Catholic for 1,500 years and Protestant for just 500, so where does the balance lie?"

Yet the emphasis placed on the flowers that commemorated Diana's death can be misleading. It was not unprecedented. If the flowers bespoke a collective hysteria at the death of an inspiring national figure, then, for example, the scenes surrounding the burial of Lord Byron in 1824 offer a direct parallel. Like Diana he was flawed but loved in spite of his faults. There was, without any prompting from TV cameras, a general weeping and wailing in the streets as the poet's coffin passed on its way to its final resting place. And the liberal use of flowers as a token of grief is to be seen throughout history. In post-Reformation England in 1601, crowds descended on London to throw their blooms in the path of the Earl of Essex, sometime favourite of Elizabeth I, as he made his way to his execution.

However, the flowers do tell us something about our changing attitude to death and remembering the dead. More than the charitable fund or the island shrine at Althorp or the Kensington rose garden, those flowers were in themselves Diana's public memorial. Indeed her death and its aftermath have revealed how far the handsome gravestone, the memorial civic amenity and the grant-giving foundation have all become curiously dated and even compromised ways of making the dead live on. Memorials in bricks, mortar and money are no longer permanent reminders.

Recently, I visited a building erected only a decade ago by a charity associated with the Princess of Wales. Each room had been named by a sponsor after a loved one who had died. Their details were recorded on a small plaque on the wall. Yet in the intervening 10 years the lay- out of the building had been remodelled, leaving several names without a room, and the plaques themselves often obscured by cupboards. Rather than recalling the dead, these forgotten memorials seem only to highlight their irrelevance in the rush to go on living.

We are forgetting ever more quickly and dead benefactors cannot compete with weather girls and flamboyant chefs to make a mark. In such an instant and throw-away culture, the flowers with which people chose to mourn the "Queen of Hearts" are an entirely instant and throw-away memorial, brilliantly colourful one day, eclipsed and swept away the next. The whole thrust of our approach now is to forget the dead, not to remember them. You've got to put it behind you, I've been told countless times over the past few weeks since my mother died. Any suggestion that I don't want to rush is taken a sign of morbidity and prompts a referral to an analyst.

"Our throw-away approach to death has come with the widespread commercialisation of our culture," says the sociologist Dr Rosalind Miles. "We think it perverse if people prefer to mourn. Twenty years ago we would not, for instance, have gone to the cinema for a week or two as a mark of respect if there was a death in our family. Today we're told it's a comfort to go."

One year on it is too soon to reach any firm conclusions about whether our reactions to the loss of Diana were part of the general trivialisation of death. In five or 10 years, those who mourned so conspicuously may have bowed to conventional wisdom that it is better to forget and spare themselves pain