When do the dead cost more than the living? Is there greater worth being dead than being a survivor? In the wake of a national tragedy the lost automatically become more important than the living and I wonder why such great value is placed on the dead. After the Towers fell there was great mourning and public expression of loss.
As plans grew to rebuild the area where the Towers fell, there was always a plan that a grandiose “memorial” to those who died in the Towers would be erected. The cost of the 9/11 memorial alone is hovering around $500 million and I am wondering why so much money is willing to be spent to memorialize those who fell.
A national event like the Towers falling is not a specific event limited to beloved individual loss. That event belongs to the world, not just the dead and their families.
Gravesites are for the expression of individual loss. National monuments are intended for shared, public, mourning for the encompassing sense of shared community reflection.
There is a greater sense of community mourning and national yearning that also must be recognized and acknowledged and I argue a larger sense of faceless loss provides greater magnification of the 9/11 event than the particulars of a solitary name embedded in the grander scheme. When the individual dead are made more important than the majority survivors then something is wrong with the way the dead are nationally remembered.
I believe this Incongruity of Mourning is found in its greatest example in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. where — instead of just having a giant black gash in the land — the black gash also holds the names of each person who died in the conflict.
People now visit that memorial not to remember the war but to mourn specific individuals by rubbing off names with paper and pencil to take home a physical memory of a virtual experience. Shouldn’t national memorials include a greater sense of national mourning than merely listing the names of the dead? The dead, when they were killed, were not in the service of themselves.
They were serving a notion of something larger and grander than the lone person. Their deaths have less value when they are whittled down to a specific name. Their deaths have greater resonance when they invisibly build a larger part of the shared national ideals and values that abstractly make up the notion of war, the honor of sacrifice and the ultimate gift of giving your life for your country.
There are plenty of people who served in Vietnam who didn’t die there but who still suffer alive more than those who are already dead. Why are the dead more valued and better memorialized than the waking wounded and the coherent living and the broken and abandoned and disabled? The Vietnam Memorial should be their living memorial as well but it is not. The Vietnam Memorial is only for the dead and for those who choose to remember them with an etching. National mourning should be remembered in memorials in the greater sense of us and not the solitary fallen.
I suggest the 9/11 memorial be redacted down to the essence of us all in a simple marble slab that says: “Here They Fell.” Some might wish to add “We Remember Them” but I argue “Here They Fell” reflects a national face, a national shared mourning and a national honor that is elegant and appropriate. “Here They Fell” automatically and silently fills in “We Remember Them” without any direct prodding or harsher interaction from the memorial itself. Your loss is no more important than my loss.
War deaths, terrorism deaths, highway accident deaths and any other unnatural, innocent killings are all equal. No dead person is more special in their coffin than the dead next to them in the graveyard. No one death is more honorable than another death. To glorify only some of the fallen and not all of the suffering is to be incongruous in the heart and inequal in the merits of mourning a national loss that can never be resurrected — not even with a name chiseled in marble.