Alongside the joys that come with recovery, cures and new life, hospitals are also, inevitably, places for loss and sadness. A memorial or remembrance garden can be an important space for people who have experienced loss to reflect on and process their experiences while remembering loved ones in a tranquil space.

More so than other types of green space, memorial gardens are often funded through staff and community fundraising efforts – perhaps by those who have been cared for and treated at the site, or who have lost dear friends or relatives who were patients – or staff – there. Some of these spaces are dedicated to children – including those lost during miscarriage or stillbirth – as a solemn place for parents to grieve and remember. Others commemorate organ and tissue donors who were able to give life to others; these reflective spaces give thanks to their families for making these choices at particularly difficult times. 

More recently, of course, memorial gardens have been created on hospital sites in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many hospitals lost hundreds of patients to the virus, and they lost staff, too. Having a dedicated and sensitively designed space on site where colleagues can take time out has been important, and these spaces are a way not just of commemorating those who died, but of thanking those who worked on the frontline of the pandemic, often at great cost to their own wellbeing and personal life.

NHS Forest sites with memorial gardens

Bespoke artworks can create a moving focal point. In Chelmsford, Essex, Broomfield Hospital’s memorial garden was created in tribute to all NHS staff who have lost their lives, past and present, and a thank you to both clinical and non-clinical health workers. It features a statue of two figures embracing – recalling the loving hugs that were denied to so many during the long lockdowns. At Bassetlaw Hospital, near Doncaster, a specially commissioned artwork is dedicated to victims of the pandemic – including a member of staff who was a plaster technician at the hospital. The tree-like plaster sculpture has hands for leaves, cast from the hands of the technician’s family members.

Sculpture at Broomfield Hospital memorial garden
Sculpture at Broomfield Hospital memorial garden. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Broomfield Hospital memorial garden
Broomfield Hospital memorial garden. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Some artworks are more collaborative; symbolic of these spaces being open to everyone who needs them. Alongside its more formal sculptures, Broomfield’s memorial garden has white pebbles painted with messages of thanks for staff, and of the names of those who died during the pandemic. At Airedale Hospital in Steeton, West Yorkshire, the Sunbeam Garden is dedicated to children who died at any stage of gestation or age, and has a Tree of Tranquillity. Parents can commission its copper leaves to be engraved with names, personal messages or dates. The hospital also has a memorial garden to commemorate patients who have donated organs

Some multi-use spaces have found sensitive ways to approach the theme of commemoration. While it is important to set aside a space for reflection, staff on lunchbreaks may not always wish to be surrounded by reminders of loss. In Leicester, Glenfield Hospital’s Secret Garden has a designated memorial space. While some benches have plaques, the hospital is creating a ‘memory wall’ where people can sponsor a commemorative message. This opens it up to happier memories, too – marking a birth for example, or a full recovery, or a symbol of gratitude to health staff – alongside the more solemn dedications. Similarly, a hawthorn ‘dedication sculpture’ installed on the wall overlooking Mount Vernon Cancer Centre’s Fern Garden has bespoke metal blossoms and leaves that can be engraved with sponsored messages.

Benches with commemorative plaques look onto the Secret Garden lawn at Glenfield Hospital
Benches with commemorative plaques look onto the Secret Garden lawn at Glenfield Hospital
Hawthorn dedication sculpture at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. People can sponsor engraved leaves and blossoms
Hawthorn dedication sculpture at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. People can sponsor engraved leaves and blossoms. Photo: East & North Hertfordshire Hospitals Charity. All rights reserved

Things to keep in mind when creating a memorial garden

Each memorial garden will be different, in recognition of its purpose and the available space. Many sites have chosen more sedate planting schemes, with all-white blooms for example, although children’s memorial gardens may opt for more vibrant themes.

Seating areas are essential, and privacy and seclusion will be appreciated. Gazebos, wooden screens and trellises with climbing plants can be gentle ways to create privacy for visitors. Walkways should be accessible – wide and flat where possible – and plaques or signs can be installed to indicate who the garden is dedicated to. It is important that these gardens have open access to anyone who wants space to reflect and remember.

Related articles