Memorial Days

May 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Finally on this holiday, essayist Roger Rosenblatt reflects on our new idea of memorials.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Memorial thoughts have acquired a strange currency since September 11. The New York Times created a new kind of memorial, in a way, with its pages of remembrance of the World Trade Center casualties. Since most of those victims were young, the brief views of their lives carried nothing of the monumentality of obituaries of the old. They were more akin to recalling someone who has just left the room. The life was still in them, and they felt quite close to our own.

This, in fact, is how we have been feeling about death generally in recent years. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington invites us to run our fingertips over the names of the fallen– in effect, to touch the dead. The United States Holocaust Museum consecrates ordinary people, and other ordinary people walk among their artifacts.

No longer are memorials conceived of as abstract obelisks or bronze men on bronze horses. In Oklahoma City, the memorial to the bombing of the federal office building consists of translucent chairs arranged in rows where the dead had been sitting at their desks, to make the point that the people lost were everyone’s co-workers.

And there continue to be smaller, more communal memorial gestures; the flowers, cards, and messages that are borne to suddenly consecrated places, such as John Kennedy, Jr.’s doorstep, and to death sites, such as trees where cars had crashed.

After TWA Flight 800 went down in the Atlantic near East Moriches, Long Island, people in towns miles to the east fell into a state of silent mourning. They nodded solemnly as they passed one another on the beaches, and for a long time refused to swim in the ocean as a sign of respect for the dead, and an acknowledgment of proximity.

Among cultural representations of this new sense of companionship, the most artistic is the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” in which the dead do not simply keep company with the living, but also chide them, annoy them, and advise them, often poorly. The theme of the series, I believe, is that Six Feet Under is not all that far away.

And in general, the dead do not pop up as ghosts anymore. They are more substantial, less threatening, and superior- sounding. And they don’t occupy a world much different from our own. We meet them on the common ground of memory. Memory is what we have of one another when we no longer have one another. And the value in a nearness to the dead is that it diminishes death’s worst feature: absence.

For thousands of American families, this Memorial Day will be uniquely painful. The people lost in the September 11 attacks and in Afghanistan were the first casualties of the war on terrorism, and their loved ones are the war’s first mourners. The change in attitude toward the dead may or may not grant them some comfort, but for those outside their personal grief, it brings the original purpose of Memorial Day to light.

The people who died in the service of our country walk with us still. They are the history with which we live– have created the history with which we live. They work, smile, march, and chat with us, and are so close, we can touch them.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.