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A spectacle unworthy of the fallen

2011 September 1
by Paul Vallely

It is no disrespect to the dead to feel relief that the public spectacle of Wootton Bassett is over. The bodies of 345 soldiers have passed through the streets of the Wiltshire market town after landing at RAF Lyneham over the past five years. But what began as a spontaneous expression of respect by local people as the coffins passed through their high street has grown and then ossified into something altogether more ambivalent.

As the years passed, the media arrived in such huge numbers that quiet dignity turned to ghoulish circus. The sense of unease was confirmed when the leader of the BNP turned up and Islamist opponents of the war threatened to hold a counter-demonstration with 500 coffins to represent the Afghans who had died. All this was taking place around the raw grief of families within hours of the repatriation of the cold bodies of their loved ones. It was all too public for the mourning phase of bereavement. Of course, some families drew succour from it. But others seemed overburdened by the weight of public expectation on their already bent shoulders. One mother ran all the way up the street after her son’s hearse. Such private anguish should not be turned into a grisly spectator sport. Public commemoration is apt, but it should come later.

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