How should we remember 9/11? I began to think about this more as the date for the opening of the 9/11 Museum neared. By coincidence, I was invited by City Wonders to take one of its tours and I chose the 9/11 Memorial Tour. This was just prior to the opening of the museum in May.
9/11 and that tour are responsible for the recent series of posts on remembering the dead. For me, it is important to understand 9/11 in context. That means not only the historical context in which the event occurred but the historical context in which we remember historical events. Our Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Passovers aren’t the same as our ancestors, nor is Memorial/Decoration Day. As a result, I began to write about different ways and circumstances in which we remember those who have died.
One post was directed towards leaders like our presidents. Whereas for example, ancient Egypt has its pyramids, Sphinx and Valley of the Kings, we have presidential libraries, presidential memorials, and Mount Rushmore which is in the news with the attempt to have the NPS recognize the work of chief carver Luigi Del Bianco of New York.
A second post addressed burial of the ordinary person. Over time, such burials migrated from under one’s house to church graveyards to the picturesque rural cemeteries such as one finds along the Hudson. I neglected to mention Potter’s Field, the burial sites for those who have no family, no money, or neither. For example, from City Island in the Bronx, one can gaze upon Hart Island, originally purchased by Thomas Pell in colonial times, used as a Civil War prison, and now home to a potter’s field with over 1,000,000 dead.
A third post touched upon those who have fallen in battle, especially away from home. The time from the Civil War to World War II was the tragic golden age for mass cemeteries of dead soldiers. Fields stretched forever with acres upon acres of neatly lined crosses to those who had died on the battlefield.
Since these wars were fought outside New York, our state does not have comparable battlefield cemeteries. Still wars were fought here. The current efforts to honor the Maryland and Delaware regiments who fought and died in Brooklyn during the American Revolution at the proposed Marylander Burial Site, and the Fishkill Supply Depot just identifying a soldier from New Hampshire who died there during the same war, attest that at the birth of this country people from other colonies died in our state. The fight to remember those who died so our country could be born continues as evident in this recent plea:
The archaeological examination conducted in Fishkill this past May reminds us of how the nation’s single largest Revolutionary War burial ground remains threatened by commercial development. As we celebrate our nation’s birthday, let’s pay homage to its first heroes by joining the fight against any further disturbance to the historic military base known as the Fishkill Supply Depot (FSD).
Remembered deaths aren’t always those of people who chose to put their lives in harms way or who have led a full life. Sometimes mass deaths of civilians occur. These are usually unexpected. For example, as recently recalled in a report by BBC news, on June 15, 1904 more than 1,000 people died due to a fire on the paddle steamer Slocum. The German immigrant community on the Lower East Side intended to enjoy the 17th annual picnic held by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church with a cruise up the East River to Long Island. The tragedy is commemorated with a still-working drinking fountain in Tompkins Square Park, once the center of Kleindeutschland, now known as Alphabet City. The German presence on the Lower East today is tiny and one wonders how many people know the story behind the fountain they drink from.
A more famous New York City tragedy is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, where 146 people died. A similar and larger tragedy in Bangladesh serves as a reminder that the unsafe conditions faced by these workers have not vanished from the earth. In anticipation of the centennial in 2011, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was formed which includes dozens upon dozens of organizations. According to its mission statement, “it is spearheading the building of a public art memorial to honor the legacy of the Triangle factory workers.” This means there is no such memorial at present. The story of the death of these garment workers is sometimes told as part of the school curriculum. At present there is a memorial display of quilts of the Triangle Fire and Bangladesh incidents at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine near Columbia University.
Perhaps the single most famous of civilian tragedies occurred just a year later on April 15, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic. The ship was sailing to New York on its maiden voyage. The passengers included New Yorkers some of whom survived and were buried here. Its story is well known with movies either about the Titanic directly or based on similar experiences and of course through the discovery of the ship itself in a remarkable achievement of underwater archaeology. It’s story lives on.
Tragedies also occur on a small scale. For example, on July 26, 2013, a night-time collision with a construction barge for the new Tappan Zee bridge left two people dead, a woman one month before her wedding and a man who was to be the best man at that wedding. The families of the deceased have launched a mission to build a lighthouse on the pier that would have the practical effect of guiding mariners while simultaneously serving as a tribute to the victims.
Finally, on a more historical note, consider this announcement from Johnson Hall State Historic Site involving not a tragedy, but a common way in which people who die in the line of duty are remembered.
Death and Diplomacy: The 240th Anniversary of Sir William Johnson’s Final Council, Death and Funeral” will be held on July 20 and 21. A re-enactment of the final July, 1774 diplomatic Indian Council, and the death of Sir William Johnson, is scheduled for Saturday the 20th, along with trade and blacksmithing demonstrations, an Open House and a lecture on “The Wampum Chronicle: A Rotinonhsoin:ni Cultural History” at 11am by Darren Bonaparte, Mohawk storyteller and author.
On Sunday the 21st, Sir William’s funeral procession from Johnson Hall to St. John’s Church will be re-enacted, as will the funeral service at the Church. Johnson Hall will be draped in period mourning for an Open House from 10am to 1pm and 3pm to 5pm. The Hall will remain draped in mourning through September 14.
I mention these examples as part of the preparatory work I did before engaging the issue of remembering 9/11. These front-page incidents both large scale and small have been remembered and forgotten in ways that are relevant to the remembering of 9/11, an event which included civilians who did not know that they were targets on a battlefield and first-responders who knew they were putting their lives on the line. Only now, a little over a decade later, is the remembering assuming physical form with the plaza and the museum. The examples of other tragedies provide here should serve as lessons for how we need to remember 9/11.