Memorials – What Is Their Meaning and Purpose?

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (September 11, 2011) – In Easton, Connecticut, students at the Old Academy Nursery School planted a tree in remembrance of Christine Hanson, the youngest victim of September 11.

Hanson had played in the field next to the nursery when she visited her grandparents in the community. The Seven Sons Flower Tree was chosen because it blossoms in September, a reminder that life continues. Beneath the tree is a simple stone bearing Hanson’s name.

At Los Angeles International Airport, there is a memorial entitled “Recovering Equilibrium.” A rotating mirror that is 15 feet in diameter floats above a concrete basin filled with water. Inscribed on the basin in different languages are virtues such as forgiveness. The memorial is designed so that people can see their reflection as well as consider the meanings of the words that too often are taken for granted.

In Dunseith, North Dakota, there is a memorial incorporating 10 steel girders surrounded by gardens that encourage contemplation. The 20,000-square-foot memorial is located within the 2,400-acre International Peace Garden. The girders are arranged in a random fashion so as to reflect the chaos of 9/11.

Native Americans of the Lummi Nation delivered totem poles – healing poles – to Shanksville, New York City, and Washington D.C. as an expression of their grief for the loss suffered by family members of the dead.

Today – Sunday – dignitaries and families of the people in the towers as well as the first responders who were killed, will participate in a ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial that honors the nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center site, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, as well as the people killed in the 1993 bombing at the Trade Center.

The memorial incorporates twin reflecting pools that are nearly an acre in size and include the largest manmade waterfalls in the North America. The pools sit within the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood.

I’ve read there are more than 700 recorded memorials across the country dedicated to 9/11. Americans, perhaps more than the citizens of any other country, memorialize their history. Each year, millions of people visit Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, Pearl Harbor, and others.

The first major memorial to be constructed in American was completed in 1825 and honored the people who died during the defense of the city of Baltimore from the British attack in September 1814, which occurred during the War of 1812.

The Civil War changed the way people viewed memorials. Prior to that conflict, soldiers were buried at the fort that housed their unit or in simple graves where they died in battle. During the war, however, Congress ordered that sites on battlefields be set aside for burying the dead, and the government began purchasing property for national cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery. Ever since, interest has grown among Americans to memorialize the dead and the conflicts in which they died.

In recent years, the largest memorials have been constructed to honor the innocent victims of terror attacks. In addition to those that recall 9/11, memorials were constructed to remember the people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing and the shootings at Virginia Tech.

We build and go to these memorials so that we might honor the dead, to recall the acts of heroes such as the first responders who trudged up the steps to their graves. We go to grieve and maybe even attain a bit of healing.

There is, of course, a biblical precedent for building memorials. God frequently ordered the Hebrews to build memorials as a way of recalling his saving acts – memorial literally means to remember. The memorials also were intended to prompt questions: Future generations would ask what the stones meant. In such a way, the identity of the people was formed.

Memorials were never meant to look simply backwards, however. As we are reminded of our identity, we are reminded of who we are called to be. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln concluded, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain …”

In the days that followed the September 2001 attacks, the people of this country wept together and determined to rise up and build a better future. To that end, we have tried to better understand our relationships with others around the world, the amount of money we give as individuals and nonprofits to international need has skyrocketed, and young people especially are more respectful of other faiths, even if they disagree.

But we also have not lived up to other hopes we had for ourselves. Spiritual revival and national unity quickly fell apart. Sanctuaries at houses of worship that once were half empty were filled to capacity. Within months attendance at churches was the same as before the attacks.

Even George Barna lamented, “I was among those who fully expected to see an intense spiritual reaction to the terrorist attacks. The fact that we saw no lasting impact from the most significant act of war against our country on our own soil says something about the spiritual complacency of the American public.”

Our politicians of different parties won’t even sit for lunch together. Politicians have held xenophobic hearings allegedly to root out Islamic radicals. Talk radio and news networks spew diatribes against people who think differently. We tortured and called it good. We are at war with one another over wars still being fought a decade after they began. There are places where religious intolerance has continued to thrive. Proposals to build mosques, for example, often have been met with hostility. Such has been the case in Du Page County outside of Chicago, where I live. Even as we honor the fallen first responders for their sacrifice, 10 years later we still are not providing them health care for crippling and fatal diseases that resulted from their heroism.

This weekend we gather in New York City, Washington D.C., Dunseith, Easton, and other communities large and small. We will watch video of the news reports from that day. Commentators will opine on its meaning. We will continue to ask each other, “Where were you? What were you doing?” We will want to tell our stories.

In whatever way we remember, may we also recall who we are and who God calls us to be. In that way, those who have died will not have done so in vain. And when future generations ask us what the memorials mean, we can tell them without shame.

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  1. Thank you for the many kind words that have been expressed here and through private emails. While working on this piece, I realized that disappointment and hope are both rooted in a belief that our world can – as well as ought – to more reflect the Kingdom of God. Seeing how the best in us has been manifested in sacrifice, heroism, and compassion only intensifies our longing.

  2. Thank you for this very thoughtful and sobering article, Stan. One would hope that from a tragedy like 9/11 we would have risen as a nation with a nobler purpose. But, alas, we seem to be a people more divided than than ever. Let’s hope that all the “remembering” just might result in some soul-searching, resulting in more worthy striving by us as a people. May God save us from the apostles of division.

  3. Excellent article. Prompts one to think what those who follow after will think of how we spent our life. What are we leaving behind? Did we major on idols or did our life worship our LORD. Also, we realize how temporal life really is.

  4. Thank you for your very well writen and thoughtful article regarding our 9/11 Memorials. Every year, I put in a tape of the HBO Special that was done to honor those 3047 lives that were taken on that day. It is a very chilling and reviting reminder of the destruction and sacrifice that was so evident in our human condition that day. Good versus Evil personified. May the peace that surpasses all understanding prevail.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful and necessary article, Stan.  It is not only beautifully crafted, it is true and kind at the same time.  Amen!

  6. This is a stirring article – first informative, then challenging us as a nation and as the Church to really love one another, as the most fitting memorial to people who have laid down their lives for others. Thank you. 

  7. Thanks for writing to call us towards forgiveness and away from blind hatred. I’ve shied away from much memorializing of 9/11 because it’s often been so connected with hatred. I’ve no wish to build a memorial to hatred itself, but unless it is unmasked for what it is.

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