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5 Reasons Grieving People Get Memorial Tattoos

4. Continuing bonds.

In cultures around the world, there are different rituals that the living rely on to honor and remember the dead. For example, in the Jewish tradition mourners sit “shiva," while in Hinduism the body is cremated within 24 hours of death so as to return it to the elements.

A recent study has looked at whether “memorial tattoos” (i.e., a tattoo that honors the deceased loved one) can be similarly understood as a way that people contend with their grief. Do they actually help the bereaved? Bee Swann-Thomas of Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom and her research team conducted semi-structured interviews with six participants, and then analyzed them for themes.

The striking results demonstrated that memorial tattoos can serve vital functions in the grief process, including as modes of expression and communication, and preserving a continued attachment to the deceased.

Theme 1: Permanence. The majority of participants highlighted the importance of permanence in getting a memorial tattoo. The tattoo itself appeared to act as a “memorial object,” which helps bereaved individuals with “non-forgetting." One participant remarked: “It will always be with me and I’ll never forget him, which is, I suppose the point of having the tattoo.”

Some participants also had to give careful deliberation to the fact that they were going to permanently mark their bodies.

Theme 2: A Tool for Managing Grief. Memorial tattoos reportedly helped participants adjust to their loss, and gave deceased loved ones a “new existence." Consider the reflection of a participant coping with the loss of her friend: “I don’t feel like I’ve lost her as much anymore. It’s almost like she’s stored in this little piece of ink or something.”

Other participants felt that getting a memorial tattoo helped them to face their grief, and have a better understanding of what they were feeling.

Theme 3: Communicative Tools. Memorial tattoos opened up a way to talk about their deceased loved one, which can be an important need for mourners. This theme surfaced in the interviews in four ways:

  • Ability for opening dialogue. Tattoos can spark communication with others, and can invite conversation about the loss.
  • "Talking" to the dead. The tattoo can act as a kind of internal representation of the deceased, and a way of remaining attached to the person who was lost.
  • Request no reply. Although memorial tattoos are “scars that speak," they don’t require a response from others.
  • Tactical omission. Those with memorial tattoos can choose with whom they want to share their story, and can do so on the basis of the listeners' reaction.

Theme 4: Continuing Bonds. This is the idea that internalized representations of others become part of who we are, and thus can help in preserving the attachment to our loved ones. As one participant stated: “…proximity is a big thing. I guess it’s just a little bit of someone close to you all the time. And even though it’s not their physical body or their physical selves, they’re embodied in this.”

Theme 5: Transformation of Self. All participants reported that their memorial tattoo had incited a change in their identity in at least one aspect of their lives. In particular, they allowed participants to engage in a process through which they actively created a new identity. As one participant shared: “It has made me grow as a person, in confidence and expression, and it’s enabled me to deal with things and not be embarrassed to talk about things that upset me. Because it is OK to cry, it is OK to be upset.”

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References

Etched in the skin: grief on a living canvas memorial tattoos as expressions of grief. Bee Swann-Thomas, Susan Fleming and Emily Buckley. February 2021. Mortality. DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2020.1865893

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