The Disturbed Tomb: Memorialization and Human Remains at the 9/11 Museum
When visitors tour the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum this week they will be greeted by the relics of one of the world’s most traumatic shared events. The Museum opens to the public May 21st, and its collection of material artifacts, images, and oral memories documents the September 11 and February 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center and examines the broad consequences of global terrorism. The museum sits in half of the World Trade Center’s 16-acre shadow, a space that may perpetually play out the tensions between its roles as memorial landscape, history museum, forensics repository, cemetery, and tourist trap.
Much of the discussion about the museum has recently revolved around whether the site is an appropriate temporary or permanent resting place for human remains. Of nearly 3000 people who died September 11, about 1115 remain unrecovered and perhaps represented somewhere among thousands of unidentified human elements recovered from the site. In August 2011 the Medical Examiner held just over 9006 pieces of human remains (skeletal fragments as well as tissue), most of infinitesimal scale that an examiner described as the size of “a Tic Tac.” In February 2013 this figure was reported as 8354 human remain samples, and on May 10, 2014 7930 remains were ceremoniously transferred to the 9/11 Museum to be placed in a “repository at bedrock on the sacred ground of the site.” Those and any remains subsequently recovered will be subject to continuing forensic examinations “temporarily or in perpetuity.”
The unidentified dead at the 9/11 Memorial occupy a somewhat unique position, housed unseen in a Medical Examiner’s lab yet among the most powerful material presences hovering over a stream of museum visitors feet away. The human remains are not “on display” or accessible to anybody except families and medical examiners; nevertheless, their presence is clearly invoked by a massive wall to the remains repository bearing the Virgil quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” (a quotation that has itself come under fire from some observers). The remains amplify the space’s claim to a sort of “consecrated” status, but for some observers—including some victims’ families—even the implicit invocation of mortal remains in a museum is at best crass. In 2011 a victim’s mother decried the decision to “`allow remains to be put in a museum, really for gawkers.’” About a dozen people wore black cloth over their mouths during the procession transferring the remains to the Memorial repository May 10th this year, protesting the decision to place the remains adjoining the museum. One of the protestors advocated for an above-ground tomb, arguing that the “`decision to put the human remains of the 9/11 dead in this basement is inherently disrespectful and totally offensive.” Referring to the memorial landscape above the subterranean museum and repository, he asked if the “`human remains of the 9/11 dead do not deserve a place of prominence equal to that of the much heralded trees and waterfalls? We think they do.’” An advisor to some protestors indicated “`We’ve been saying for years now, this is not a place where the remains should go … You shouldn’t put a museum and human remains together.’” Yet for many families, the proximity of the museum was less significant than the return of victims’ remains to a “sacred space,” with one telling the New York Times that “`That is where they died, that is where there is a proper memorial for them, and to me it is a good, safe and holy place.’”
Housing these remains at the 9/11 Memorial may well be a more respectful resting place than the Medical Examiner’s lab, but the victims’ physical presence will inevitably be part of the exhibit and the museum’s 9/11 narrative. Ignoring the unidentified 9/11 remains, reducing the victims to a series of forensic samples, or separating them from the Manhattan landscape is increasingly untenable. For instance, in the wake of the attack, the landscape of the World Trade Center was covered with dust and dense sediments that combined everything from the site, including human remains. Many landscapes of trauma—Gettysburg, Nagasaki, holocaust crematories like Majdanek, Ground Zero—are spaces in which human remains were highly fragmented if not reduced to particles that have now literally become part of the landscape. As Marita Sturken argues, dust almost instantly became a powerful visual metaphor for 9/11, a thin film representing the tallest buildings on the planet, tons of office goods, airliners, and human remains. Much of this dust was quickly removed from the landscape, momentarily erasing the signs of trauma but also disturbing literal human remains fused with the detritus of disaster.
By 2004, though, victims’ families had begun to press for a redefinition of the Trade Center “dust” that was then being processed at the former Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. A group called the WTC Families for Proper Burial complained to the New York Times that “the cement dust and pulverized glass from the collapsed buildings are mingled with blood, bone and human ashes,” and they feared human remains were mingled along with the millions of tons of other debris that had been moved from Manhattan to the former landfill. Viewed in the aftermath of the attack simply as toxic refuse, such dust subsequently inched toward the status of sacred relic no longer clearly separated from the Manhattan landscape or the Staten Island debris and no longer reducible simply to soil or dust. Patricia Yaeger has argued the forensic and rhetorical analysis of the apparently prosaic Trade Center dust aspires to separate it into paper, steel, personal effects, and human remains, rendering the constituent elements meaningful and separating humans from detritus.
Science allows us to preserve hope that the remains of those recovered in the Manhattan debris may one day be no longer anonymous; that is, beyond bearing collective if anonymous testimony to September 11’s trauma those unidentified remains may eventually be returned to their families. Observers euphemistically refer to this as “closure,” but that notion is somewhat ambiguous, especially in the case of a forensic assemblage like that left in the wake of 9/11. In one case, a victim is represented by more than 300 individual pieces, and some who have been buried have subsequently had additional remains recovered and identified (about 150 victims’ families have asked not to be notified of identified remains at all). Science’s promise to identify victims may well provide a meaningful resolution in the sense that it will return some victims’ remains to their families, but it simultaneously ensures that human remains will long remain part of the 9/11 narrative. The unidentified victims of 9/11 will remain a distinctive part of the narrative as long as they reside in the liminal zone between life and a fluid notion of “rest.” At the 9/11 Memorial the forensic mission has focused on identifying the unidentified remains, but indefinitely invoking the presence of the unidentified dead punctuates the site’s trauma in ways some observers will find too painful.
There is no single appropriate strategy to address the unidentified remains from 9/11, but many more sites have dispensed with unceasing forensic investigation and buried anonymous remains. Unidentified remains from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, were buried collectively at the State Capitol (over two miles from the bombing site) after consultation with victims’ families; and the Pennsylvania site where Flight 93 crashed on September 11th is accessible only to family and crew members’ survivors because the site is assumed to contain human remains. There are many examples of traumatic landscapes that collect anonymous human remains in mass graves, including Hiroshima, Dachau, and Shiloh, and all of those places are interpreted by museum exhibits that do not necessarily strike us as insufficiently reverential. Those anonymous mass burials do not necessarily efface individuals’ histories at all, and the 9/11 museum has by initial accounts thoroughly and thoughtfully documented the thousands of victims’ biographies. Some human remains will almost certainly be housed in the 9/11 Museum repository indefinitely, so the question is how to accord them respect without turning the victims’ bodies into relics that hold together the museum’s narrative without being explicitly addressed.
Zoran M. Budimlija, Mechthild K. Prinz, Amy Zelson-Mundorff, Jason Wiersema, Eric Bartelink, Gaille MacKinnon, Bianca L. Nazzaruolo, Sheila M. Estacio, Michael J. Hennessey, and Robert C. Shaler
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David W. Dunlap
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Edward T. Linenthal
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Zipporah Lax Yamamoto
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9/11 Museum Bike Rack image from 9/11 Memorial Blog, photo by Jin Lee
9/11 Memorial Museum image from Bjoertvedt on Wikimedia
9/11 Dedication, Memorial Exhibition rendering, and DiNardo wallet from 9/11 Memorial Museum Gallery
Federal Hall image from Wikimedia