Bones are hardy and can testify throughout antiquity to the state of the person who earned those bones in their body. However, the dreams and wishes of others embedded in those bones are frail and fleeting because memory is convenient and, as humans, we run from pain instead of searching out suffering.
With the recent discovery of 74 more bone fragments mixed with gravel that had been shoveled to the sides of the roof of the former Deutsche Bank building in the ongoing open wound that is the World Trade Center disaster on 9/11, we are forced to reconcile the way we choose to memorialize people beyond bones and flesh. Deutsche Bank — the building below shrouded in black netting and holding the American flag — will be demolished floor-by-floor in June.

Deutsche Bank


The 9/11 families who still do not have their dead identified were
especially upset with this recent discovery because all the memories
and pain come bubbling and bleeding to the surface of their
consciousness all over again:

Earlier this year,
workers in the building found four additional human body parts, and
they found 10 additional bone fragments on the roof last fall. In the
most recent discovery, workers retrieved 82 samples, 74 of which proved
to be human remains that will undergo DNA testing, Borakove said.
Some Sept.

11 family members have urged the Lower Manhattan Development
Corp. rebuilding agency to have forensic experts search the building
first, and many planned to ask Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday to
require a team from the medical examiner’s office to be on the site at
all times.
“This is an abomination that we are putting this on construction
workers,” said Sally Regenhard, the mother of a firefighter killed at
the trade center.

The medical examiner’s office has more than 9,000 unidentified
remains from the 2,749 victims of the trade center attack. The remains
are being are being stored in the hope that more sophisticated DNA
technology will allow for identifications in the future. The remains of
more than 40% of the people killed at the trade center have not been
identified.

Are we our bones or are we something greater?
Is it possible to bury a beloved without a body?
Have our human rituals become slaves to science?
Must we rely upon DNA samples and absolute identification to finally let our mourning rest in peace?

11 Comments

  1. I can feel for the families when news of bones and other body parts are found at Ground Zero and surrounding areas.
    I wonder if DNA testing is necessary, however. We are more than our bone or other parts. But, I can see the need for families to have closure. Maybe testing the fragments helps families to grieve their loss.

  2. Hi Chris —
    I agree closure is important for the 9/11 families.
    The question is how often do we keep opening up the past to gain closure?
    There are some 9/11 families who have buried a single bone fragment and had a funeral. They are closed and over.
    Other families refuse to have a funeral until there is something to bury — verification of death — and they will not rest until that happens.
    Other families are faced with an even more awful problem. They bury a fragment and then months later another fragment of their beloved’s body appears. Do you open the casket and place that other fragment inside? Do you have another burial ceremony? Do you throw away the new body part? Cremate it?
    Some families fear their lost loved ones will keep popping back up in pieces for a long time and they just can’t keep going through the grieving process over and over again.

  3. I’m not a family member, so I don’t have the emotional connection to the 9-11 tradegy beyond what we all felt on that terrible day as we witnesses the destruction on our television screens and listened on the radio.
    If it was me, I wouldn’t want to keep going through the grieving process over and over. It would be too terrible a thought.
    Maybe cremation is the best for the parts, especially if families have already had their funeral ceremony.

  4. It is a tough situation, Chris.
    I agree some sort of small ritual is important for the families to be at rest with the pieces as they are found. I don’t know if it is better to notify families of found pieces in an ongoing process or to instead have a set end date in the future — say five years from now — and collect everything as you go and then, finally, present what you found one last time to the families.

  5. Hi Chris —
    As I understand it, the city notifies families upon any successful DNA identification. The problem is a lot of the bone fragments were fired for hours in the twin towers furnace so extracting DNA today is not possible. However, in 20 years or so there may be new proven methods for extracting DNA from charred bone to provide identification and that is why the city is holding on to all fragments — even if presently unidentified — in order to perchance provide hopeful identification for the future.
    9/11 is guaranteed to reverberate again and again for the families for the next 50 years as science catches up to secrets of the body.

  6. AdjunctX! It has been a long while. It is quite fine to hear from you again. You are right that 9/11 sets new burial challenges for the dead and the living are left behind to suffer in the in-between wondering where to go next and how to feel about not having an entire body to bury.
    The link you provide takes this discussion in a whole new thought process! Fascinating read, thanks!

  7. It’s interesting in American that burial rituals are mainly controlled by religious affiliation and not cultural cues. Some believe in immediate burial while others believe in embalming to preserve the body so friends and family from afar can gather to say good-bye.

  8. Separating culture from religion is a curious idea, AdjunctX. Religion is ruled by a culture but a culture does not always include a religion. Respect for the dead — for the body, the vessel, the container of the being — is important in many cultures and that process of respect for the process of passing echoes Joan Didion’s fine idea about Wagon Trail Morality:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/05/30/on-morality/
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/12/29/plunging-into-death/