Saturday, May 24, 2014

Honor & Loss Memorials & Identity

Soldiers, Heroes, Faith: A Time & Place to Honor

1. War Memorials offer the living evidence that another human being lived and died. And in that war, that person made a significant contribution to us -- the one living and able to observe the memorial. Even when not connected by a family tree, we feel connected to someone who helped preserve our nation.

2. Memorials reveal identities. But the identities are often limited to a name and a date. Somehow the name is such a vital part of who we are. Some people get pretty upset when their names are mispronounced. What’s in a name? A lot really- an entire life can be called up by a name. And we care for those unnamed—a place reserved in time and space for the “Unknown.” 

3. Memorials seem eternal. Memorials to fallen leaders or major national events – including wars—are made of hard rock and steel-- materials that outlast many lifetimes. No one wants to be forgotten. And those who formed a nation or a religion remind us of our identity. We human beings are social beings. We connect to our nations and our faiths. And we fight for both. Memorials represent our values and we want those values to last. People want eternal life. Memorials helps us manage the fear of death and hint that something durable about us may outlast our fragile existence on earth.

4. Memorials fix historical narratives. And memorials shape our memories. Those who create a memorial are those with the power and resources to do so. Leaders ultimately decide the shape of the objects and space that concretize the narrative. Critics of the narrative are relegated to books and academic papers. There are few antimemorials.

5. Memorials define national and religious identities. A glance across the allied cemeteries near Normandy, France reveals a field of Christian crosses and some Jewish stars. If present, I did not see the symbols of other faiths. There must not have been any atheists in that war. And the names- women must have been few and far between- if they were there. Oh, the colors- the markers are all white. In books and movies we learn a revised narrative. There were people of many ethnics groups with different religious beliefs. They spoke different languages and their skins varied in color. There were women as well as men who forged a nation and nurtured faith.

6. Memorials without faces and figures capture our loss. The people are gone. Reflecting Absence is the name of the U.S. 9/11 Memorial. We are left to reflect on those who no longer live. And we are left with sadness. Hilker observed that Americans have conveyed a visual representation marking the absence of those who have left us—especially under horrific conditions—Gettysburg, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As Hilker wrote (p. 30),
“Mourning is the human response to the absence of those lost.”

7. Memorials help us live. 
Death is always abstract for the living—especially the young who have been protected from the face of death. As Hilker observes, memorials can evoke melancholy and invite us to grieve. Throughout the year we see people weep on news stories. If we have lost a loved one, we know their sadness. We feel their pain. And perhaps in that process of honoring those past we gain a new sense of the importance of life- our own life, our neighbors’ lives, and the lives of all those with whom we identify—our country, our faith, our fellow human beings.

Each day we contribute to the narrative we leave 
to help shape those who remember us.


Ben-Amos, A. (2003). War commemoration and the formation of Israeli national identity. Journal of Political & Military Sociology, 31(2), 171-195.

Hilker, A. (2014). The comfort of melancholy: Understanding the experience of absence at American memorials. Journal of American Culture, 37, 29-36. doi:10.1111/jacc.12104

Johnston, R., & Ripmeester, M. (2009). Awake anon the tales of valour: the career of a war memorial in St. Catharines, Ontario. Canadian Geographer, 53, 404-426. doi:10.1111/j.1541-0064.2009.00261.x

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