How Should the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum Honor the Unknown Dead?

The state of the universe.
May 12 2014 3:31 PM

How to Honor the Dead We Cannot Name

The problems with the Sept. 11 memorial museum.

Emergency personnel carry a casket draped with a U.S. flag during the ceremonial transfer of unidentified Sept. 11 remains from the medical examiner's office to a repository at ground zero on May 10, 2014.
Emergency personnel carry a casket draped with a U.S. flag during the ceremonial transfer of unidentified Sept. 11 remains from the medical examiner's office to a repository at ground zero on May 10, 2014.

Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

On Saturday, May 10, a solemn procession marked the transfer of the unidentified human remains of the World Trade Center disaster from the New York City medical examiner’s office to a “remains repository” in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Many Sept. 11 victims’ family members had worked for years, through protest and legal proceedings, to halt the placement of the remains in the underground museum. Nevertheless, after many delays, the museum is set to open on May 21, and when it does tourists will pay $24 each to mill around just yards away from the fragments of those who died on that day.

While the New York City medical examiner will retain legal stewardship over the remains, the repository is situated in the museum complex, located between the footprints of the Twin Towers. The location is marked only by a quotation from the Aeneid (“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”), yet many visitors will know what’s behind that wall.

Is the new repository a part of the museum, a cemetery, a forensics lab, or a tomb for the unknown who will never be identified? This lack of clarity is troubling. As of today the Sept. 11 memorial museum is the only museum in the world in which unidentified human remains constitute a central, and yet tragically unacknowledged, feature. History shows that it need not have turned out this way.


Hiroshima shows a different possibility. The bomb obliterated more than 100,000 people in a fraction of a second. The bomb also dismembered, burned, and poisoned countless thousands of others. The Peace Memorial Park, built in the 1950s, is a moving and appropriate memorial to the disaster. At one end is the A-bomb dome, a municipal building below the hypocenter that was badly damaged but not destroyed. It was left to stand with bricks lying about and holes in its walls, a meaningful and understandable memorial to the effects of the first atomic bomb. At the other end of the park is a remarkable museum that honors the dead. Its exhibits also grapple in intelligent ways with the responsibility of Japan’s military government for starting the war.

Along the path of the park lies a special memorial that one can almost miss. A “memorial mound” about 10 feet high and 48 feet in diameter contains a vault with the remains of 70,000 unidentified victims of the atomic bombing. They were cremated at various sites around the city in the horrific days and weeks after the attack, before they could be identified by family. A small pagoda finial stands at the top of the mound that is otherwise simple and plain. The grass that has been allowed to grow on the mound is kept cut but is not manicured. One can come near to but not tread on the mound. There is no charge to pay one’s respects. It is simple, powerful, and present—a constant reminder of the human costs of war.

At Auschwitz, the location of millions of deaths, one could say that the entire site is a final resting ground for human remains. One can dig even now just below the grass and find fragments of bones. The crematoria, badly damaged and decaying, attest to the mass production of murder. Exhibits of hair shaved from prisoners’ heads have long served to help visitors understand the humanity of the victims. With almost a million and a half visitors annually, Auschwitz has folded the museum and memorial functions into one—it is hard to imagine it functioning in any other way. Visitors walk the grounds where countless prisoners were housed and where their incinerated remains lie embedded in the soil. Visitors are deeply immersed in exhibits of victims’ shoes, children’s toys, and a vast store of other personal items taken from the newly arrived. The connection between mourning and learning is explicit.


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