Monday, November 26, 2012

Memorials as Sites of Peace and Burial in New York and Srebrenica-Potocari

Waterfall and Reflecting Pool at 9/11 Memorial
Photo: Craig Ruttle via Newsday
Walking onto the cobblestone plaza of the National September 11 Memorial is an emotionally evocative experience. Visiting this specific site brings up many images and memories: those that I experienced as a young onlooker, far removed from the events of the morning on that site, but especially those which came after in the subsequent weeks, months and years. The purpose of a memorial is to serve as a place of remembrance, which is precisely what the National September 11 Memorial does, but there is an added layer present on this site. Beneath the peaceful waterfalls and the beautiful rows of trees is a deeper connection that makes this site so effective at calling up emotions and memorializing the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Though I have not visited, I believe that visiting the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be evocative in the same way. Here is another instance of incomprehensible tragedy after which survivors, families and the community at large joined together to build a memorial on top of the exact site where the world changed forever. This memorial is not dotted with trees but rather with gravestones, circling out from a religious pavilion, marking the victims’ final resting place. Since 2003, an annual ceremony takes place to return newly identified bodies (though many people remain missing) to Potocari and bring some peace to their families. Nearly all of the victims’ families decide to return their dead to this site rather than bury them in smaller, private cemeteries. Why is this? Why build a memorial at the site of so much misery and then decide to return your loved ones to the same location?
Grave markers at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center
Photo: Memorial Center website
Memorial Stone listing towns impacted by July 1995 genocide and number of victims

The museum portion of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is not yet open but once it has been completed the missing and dead will be returned to this site as well. At the bedrock level, beneath the plaza, there will be a private space where the yet unidentified remains of victims of September 11 will be stored. This area will be accessed only by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner with a private area for the loved ones of the victims, but its presence will be felt by all visitors to the site. Collective experience and memory are important aspects of healing within any community after a traumatic event and memorials can be integral tools to aid in this process but what is the significance of returning the dead to the site where everything began?

References and further reading:

Blais, Allison, and Lynn Rasic. A Place of Remembrance: Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial.                   Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 2011.

Wagner, Sarah E. To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica's Missing. Berkeley: University of California, 2008.

For 9/11 Museum, Dispute Over Victims’ Remains

Live feed of National September 11 Memorial Plaza


  1. Beautifully written blog post. You raise a number of good questions. I am particularly interested in the final question you raise. I wonder why the 'site where everything began' is chosen as a final resting place rather than homes or near families. Perhaps it has to do more with the experiences of the dead rather than those of the living?

  2. I'm curious about what role the individual plays in this. The memorials are aimed at collective memory and the comingled remains represent the collective victims of violence. This might be a very Western point of view, but it seems that the remains are valued for their collective symbolism rather than the significance of their individual lives.

  3. I am still interested in seeing if religion plays any role or motivation behind some of the families who are opposed to the plans.

  4. Memory, Commemoration & Mourning taught by Bert Cohler and Peter Homans.

    Books and articles:

    Symbolic Loss: the Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century's End

    The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis

    Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia"

    Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero

    Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials

    The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape

    Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition

    On Collective Memory

    Memory, History, Forgetting

    Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory

    The Future of Nostalgia


  5. Very clear and well written post! Like Grace i am interested in the role that the individual is given in these kind of memorials for mass remembrance. Maybe some of the questions you could ask is whether despite being listed on the monument, do the individuals lose something in the sheer size of the monument and its message? Maybe that could be a question you may want to explore is possible.