In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Diaz constructed an impromptu memorial in Manhattan for his missing brother Matthew, which I saw online. It consisted of a Payless shoebox holding a pair of worn black shoes, neatly tied. The top of the box, propped up, served as a kind of headstone. A verse from the Gospel of Mark (9:3) was scrawled on it in magic marker: “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.” This spontaneous outpouring tugs at the heart, yet its message is hard to decode. Why that particular verse? Why those shoes? We may never know.
Paradoxically, temporary commemorations like the one made for Matthew Diaz sometimes achieve universality by their specificity. They express raw emotion that typically is lost by the time a permanent memorial is erected. Ripped open by tragedy, we give ourselves creative and spiritual permission to explore life’s big questions—Why I am here? Where am I going? How will I be remembered?—that do not often come to mind on ordinary Tuesday mornings. These sharp but evanescent insights illuminate our deepest yearnings to know ourselves and to know God.
9/11’s Immediate Memorials
Beginning on the afternoon of the attacks, posters of missing persons blanketed New York City; they were made in response to the initial belief, soon dispelled, that victims were walking around in an amnesiac state or lying unidentified in hospital beds. The photocopied posters were remarkably consistent in design—an 8.5 inch by 11 inch sheet, with a family photo, minimal identification and some contact information—yet they represented an invention of mourning and remembrance at its most compelling. It was easy to identify with the missing, poised over barbeques, at weddings, on vacation, because variations of those same pictures are glued in our own photo albums. They were us.
A second wave of posters gave additional data about birthmarks, scars, earrings, shoes and tattoos to aid forensic identification, intimate details that increased their familiarity further still. The images evolved a third time, now marked “Remember me,” “Pray for me,” or other words of release, into posthumous Everyman memorials that were both germ and zenith of the vast photographic collage that would emerge from that day.
In a gesture that proved to be a cathartic gift to the nation, The New York Times published “Portraits of Grief,” more than 2,200 thumbnail profiles of 9/11 victims that ran daily from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31, 2001, and continued sporadically into 2003. Taking their inspiration from the posters of the missing, the profiles featured stamp-size photographs and impressionistic biographies that revealed those lost—traders, firefighters, new parents, gourmet chefs, literary escapists and fanatical golfers—sometimes in all their lovable idiosyncrasy. The “Portraits” section evolved into a national shrine of sorts. Reading them became a daily ritual for many. As my brother said at the time, “I have to read them. Every day, I meet more great people.”
Michael Arad’s Memories
Shortly after the attacks, the architect Michael Arad created a temporary installation on the rooftop of his East Village apartment to express the emptiness he felt. The work consisted of water that flowed into two square-shaped cavities, giving the effect of two black voids floating on top of a ghostly pool. Those rooftop seeds of grief and hope, transmuted in Arad’s winning memorial design of 2004, became the double inverted fountains of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Arad’s essential idea was that the most fitting response to the loss of so many souls and the skyline itself would be absence, not presence, a void, not a solid. Although the design team eventually included ideas from the landscape architect Peter Walker and others, the fundamental memorial concept was in place within weeks of the tragedy.
Not all temporary memorials have equal weight—teddy bears and key chains are not the stuff of high art—but they all point to what is to come. Unlike permanent monuments that are built to outlast the people who built them, temporary commemorations show vulnerability. They express a deep need to mark an event, like Jacob planting the Bethel stone. Such memorials shout, “They mattered! And I matter too!” Even permanent memorials are not a final step, but rather one more stage in the process of reconciliation.
Names are also important, as is the way they are presented. The artist Maya Lin taught us this when she insisted this the names of fallen Vietnam veterans be listed on the Washington, D.C., memorial in the order of their date of death, instead of alphabetically, which would have had the heartless anonymity of a phone book. Given past commemorative debates, the task of arranging the 2,982 names of those who died was a challenge for the designer of the national memorial at the World Trade Center. (This number includes the six people killed in the truck bomb explosion in the parking garage of the north tower on Feb. 26, 1993.)
As Arad explained it, the aim was to “place the names of those who died that day [Sept. 11] next to each other in a meaningful way, marking the names of family and friends together, as they had lived and died.” The names at ground zero are organized by “meaningful adjacencies” that reflect where victims died, their work affiliations and their personal relationships.
A name-finder on the memorial’s Web site combines aspects of the “Portraits of Grief” and the posters of the missing, providing a photo, life dates, birthplace and professional affiliation. Like an inscription on a headstone, these brief bios tell us something, but not nearly enough to convey the fullness of a life. Taken together, however, these snippets form a democracy that emphasizes what we all share: namely, a creaturely destiny to become part, sooner or later, of an eternal continuum. Here, in the midst of names and portraits, I find Matthew Diaz, who is smiling broadly. He is far from those black shoes, having gone up the high mountain.
Finished and Unfinished
Unlike their ephemeral cousins, permanent memorials generate controversy because what is being argued is history itself. The finished monument does not tell us what happened but instead represents how the majority thought an event should be remembered.
The commemorative process is strikingly similar, no matter what the event or site: the overwhelming consensus that an event should be memorialized is followed by debate, sometimes acrimonious, from which the memorial design emerges. On the dedication day, sometimes only a few weeks later, the controversy is forgotten, the design extolled; most accept the monument narrative as “the way things were.” One might say that what is finally built is mostly a marker of the soul-searching process that brought it into being. Inevitably, the monument will fade into the fabric of the landscape and attain the peculiar invisibility of the familiar.
The New Memorial
The 9/11 memorial consists of two massive pools, each an acre in size, which are placed in the twin towers’ footprints. Water cascades down their sides and disappears into a still lower pool. The names of those who died are inscribed in bronze panels that surround the pools and stretch in either direction as far as one can see. The names are stencil-cut, allowing visitors to look through them to the water below, or to run their fingers over each name, one of the most ancient forms of homage. At night, light will shine up through the letters, transforming each name. Matthew Diaz and all of those who died that day will become exceedingly white and shining, like snow, provoking reflection on what is to come.
While the horizontal name panels locate the victims and those who mourn them within the human collective, the vertical axis—the one stretched between the seemingly bottomless depths of the pools and heaven above—engages our individual, spiritual selves. By placing temporal concerns in a larger, timeless context, memorials remind us that our true nature is not of this world. But it is also not apart from the world.
As we approach the dedication of the permanent memorial in Lower Manhattan, a milestone event that will mark the closing of one chapter and the opening of a new one, it is important to remember those promises we made to ourselves in the autumnal days of 2001: to meet more great people every day, simply by deciding to see their greatness; to treat ourselves and others with kindness and compassion; to stop and consider the beauty of the world; to do those things that frighten us most, whether offering an apology or moving away from habits or habitual situations that keep us stuck; to give thanks, often. The new 9/11 memorial, a massive double baptismal font of sorts, beckons us to immerse ourselves and emerge into a new life.