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Memorializing Amy: Ashes to ashes, booze and butts

On the day of Amy Winehouse's funeral, as her family and friends gathered at a synagogue in north London, a steady stream of people came to visit the makeshift shrine outside her house in Camden Square.

A girl no older than 8 danced to the sultry bump-and-grind of You Know I'm No Good ("you sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray") playing on her mother's MP3. A couple of young women sobbed, while others sat quietly, smoking and drinking beer out of plastic cups. Mostly people just wanted to have their pictures taken in front of the growing pile of flowers and photos, candles and poems, liquor bottles and rolling papers.

We're not talking about Château d'Yquem here. The tributes the people left were rocket fuel, get-smashed-as-quickly-as-possible-in-the-parking-lot stuff: high-octane cider and cheap vodka and Southern Comfort. (Does anyone actually drink Southern Comfort once they've left high school?) Perhaps if this were Egypt a few millennia ago, her followers would have left her cats and cooking pots and food to help in the afterlife; now, she gets Red Bull and gin and cigarettes.

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A woman named Nicki arrived with a small teddy bear to place on the pile; not because Amy Winehouse had ever expressed a love of plush toys but because stuffed animals have become the currency of makeshift shrines, as if the dead, like children, need comforting.

I met a couple of lovely older women who live in the neighbourhood and had come to pay their respects. One of them, Ann Hudson, had a granddaughter Ms. Winehouse's age; her friend Pam Knight said she had liked the singer's music "especially the jazz bits."

But they were looking at the chaotic pile, the sacred and profane jumbled together, with pursed lips. They shook their heads in unison. "It's not right, is it?" Mrs. Hudson said. "A bit disrespectful," Mrs. Knight said.

They were not alone in their distaste. Around the world, people saw the jumble of bottles and cans, half-filled with lurid pink wine and warm beer, and took this as a cruel slight against the woman whose life – and perhaps her death – was defined by drink and drugs.

But I don't think the offerings were meant to be cruel; they were meant to be defiant, a cheeky middle finger up to fate. How odd and hypocritical would it have been if we had pretended that in death Amy Winehouse was something she wasn't in life? A shrine made of lace pillows and copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry might be more picturesque, but would hardly honour the irreverence of a woman who once stopped an interview to say, "Oh – I've gobbed on myself."

Efforts to tidy death are bound to fail, especially when the life refused to be contained. Earlier this month, crowds gathered at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris to remember Jim Morrison, who died 40 years ago at 27, the same age as Ms. Winehouse. It's also the same age that Kurt Cobain was when he took his own life. Lacking any official memorial or grave to visit in Seattle, his fans now flock to a scarred, graffiti-covered park bench behind the house where he shot himself.

When Jim Morrison's fans sang Doors songs and decorated his tomb with wine bottles, were they mocking the man who died drink-flabby in a bathtub or celebrating his desire to be Bacchus reborn? So many pilgrims still flock to his grave to recite William Blake – and decorate the headstone with underwear – that the cemetery has had to hire security guards.

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Religion no longer has a stranglehold on our mourning rituals, which means that grief can be as colourful, tacky and sentimental as the grief-stricken would like it to be. But there is always going to be someone who wants to crash the wake. Earlier this year, in a town near London called Colchester, people who had decorated their loved ones' graves with wind chimes, toys and teddy bears were told by local councillors to remove the objects. Bikinis and beer-drinking were also banned in the graveyard. Apparently the noise of the chimes was disturbing the peace, although with the dead uncomplaining, it's likely that propriety was the only thing being disturbed. Across the United States, highway police struggle with the proliferation of roadside shrines. They don't want to be insensitive to grief, but the flowers and stuffed animals and poems flapping in the wind are an eye-catching distraction for motorists.

On Tuesday night, after Amy Winehouse's funeral, police were called to the streets surrounding the shrine to break up a gathering of fans who were engaging in alcohol-assisted mourning. Even after they left, the pile of flowers and bottles continued to grow. It had begun to look like London itself: messy, inconsistent, alive.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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