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Unclaimed remains: mediating loss, narrating place

In July 2009,1 attended a panel discussion with the architects of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum: Michael Arad, Peter Walker, Davis Brody Bond Aedas, and Snohetta (Arad et al. 2009). During the question and answer portion of the panel, several audience members voiced concern over the then-current phase of memorial design. A mother of a deceased first responder criticized the 9/11 Memorial for housing the majority of its didactic information on victims, including her son, inside the museum’s Memorial Exhibition, located seven stories below ground in the original South Tower footprint. According to this mother’s concerns, the memorial should be amended to incorporate didactic information above ground, especially for family members that choose not to enter the below-ground memorial museum for personal reasons.

The emotional exchange between the woman and the architectural team underscores the delicate interplay between multiple communities and their, at times, conflicting needs to remember and mourn people, events, and places. The worries of grieving families over the placement of information pertinent to their loved ones exemplifies how the 9/11 Memorial & Museum belongs, at least in part, to those able to speak on behalf of the dead. Linkages between the living and deceased were repeatedly forged throughout the various processes and stages of World Trade Center memorialization, contributing to the site’s complex social meaning, as is evident particularly

“The composite.” Hanger 17, JFK International Airport. Image courtesy of the author (taken June 2009)

Figure 1.3 “The composite.” Hanger 17, JFK International Airport. Image courtesy of the author (taken June 2009).

in conflicts over the inclusion of forensic objects containing traces of human DNA inside the below-grade museum.

One of the more controversial objects displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s Historical Exhibition illustrates the ethical dilemmas that complicate the preservation of traumatic events for a wider public audience. “The Composite,” as the museum has dubbed it, is comprised of five unidentified floors of one of the Twin Towers that were compressed into a single mass during the building’s collapse (see Figure 1.3). While some, including 9/11 family groups, argue that this artifact—which can only be described as a galactic-looking rock, or meteorite—is particularly powerful in communicating the destructive force of the attacks to the visiting public and should therefore be on display in the museum, others vehemently oppose its exhibition. For them, this formation hints at the presence of human remains not just among but even within the ruins. In reminding visitors of the human carnage encapsulated in the site and its objects, it turns them into witnesses of an abhorrent absence, which can elicit strong emotional responses, particularly for some 9/11 families. Some 9/11 families have therefore even gone so far as to press for the object’s complete removal from the memorial museum and advocate for its burial (National September 11 Memorial Museum 2006-2008). What this controversy ultimately reminds us of is that even the interests within what seems to be a single stakeholder group—that of 9/11 families—can be anything but unified as some agents within it support exposing the sheer brutality of the destruction while others prioritize shielding the dignity of its victims.

As this analysis of “the Composite” demonstrates, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum not only serves as a public space of collective memory but also as a private place of mourning and loss, particularly for those whose loved ones’ remains were never found. Marked by the overwhelming absence of bodies but an abundance of body parts, the World Trade Center is a place where the spectral and the material—the dead and the living—are forced to engage. According to National September 11 Memorial & Museum statistics, nearly 22,000 bone fragments and pieces of organic matter were collected during the clean-up and recovery efforts following the attacks (see Blais and Rasic 2011). Of those 22,000 remains, approximately 13,000 (1,600 victims, or nearly 60 percent) have been positively identified and returned to victims’ next of kin (Blais and Rasic 2011, 80 86). But this also means that 40 percent of 9/11 families were not able to repatriate any concrete remains for channeling their grief. Vague and anonymous artifacts, like the composite, are therefore central to the memorial museum’s function as a place of mourning death in absentia for those whose loved ones’ remains were never found.

Serving as a final resting place for the 9,000 unclaimed remains, for some the World Trade Center memorial complex is “sacred ground.” The precarious presence of these vast amounts of unidentified human remains has continued to be a source of tension and distress for family members and 9/11 Memorial & Museum staff alike. The placement of a repository housing the unclaimed remains inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum, for example, attracted additional controversy from 9/11 family groups. In 2011, a lawsuit was filed against the City of New York as 17 families fought to relocate the unclaimed remains to a proposed above-ground tomb, envisioned for the Memorial’s street-grade plaza (see Hartocollis 2011a, 2011b; Cohen 2012). As the plaintiffs charged, “If [the original design] plan is implemented, to visit the remains, you will need to enter the 9/11 [Memorial] Museum and pass the 9/11 souvenir store and snack bar on the 1st floor” (Cohen 2012, 16). However, this underground repository was initially requested and approved by the majority of victims’ kin.5 Motivated by prevailing institutional desires to identify and return human remains to family members amidst improvements in DNA technology, the underground repository is operated not by the Memorial Museum, but by the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). Situated behind a concrete wall marked only by the Virgil inscription “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” the repository remains inaccessible to all but family members, despite its prominent public profile at the heart of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Emotional investments in the placement and safekeeping of human vestiges remain strong amongst 9/11 families and their supporters.6 The commodification of traumatic loss vis-a-vis its proximity to spaces of consumption—such as the museum’s souvenir shop and cafe—compromises, in the plaintiffs’ views, the course of grief for those still in mourning and diminishes the sanctity of the site itself through the sacrilegious treatment of human remains. Although the families’ lawsuit was defeated, the example demonstrates how deeply commemorative practices at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum are entrenched with sentiments—and objects—of traumatic loss. Post-9/11 rescue and recovery efforts bring to the surface the unfathomable deaths that transpired at the World Trade Center. Of the 2,753 people killed at the site, only 176 bodies were recovered from the rubble “relatively intact” while the remaining 94 percent of victims were classified as “missing” (Blais and Rasic 2011, 80—86). One 9/11 widow characterized this sudden and complete loss of her husband as “mind-boggling” (Spielberg 2011). As the woman continued, “It’s mind-boggling when you think about someone going to work one day and not coming back at all. They found nothing, he just kinda disappeared” (Spielberg 2011, emphasis in original). A mother echoed this confusion regarding the loss of her son: “It’s like [my son] just disappeared. It would be better to know [what happened to him]” (Can-dia 2011, brackets in original). Denied the ability to process the loss of a loved one privately, some family members feel that the sacredness of the remains—both human and archeological—is not to be tarnished by their unceremonious and highly public consumption.7

The above examples reflect the constant and, for some, contentious engagement with loss, or that which remains, at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. In their introduction to Loss: The Politics of Mourning (2003), David Eng and David Kazanjian reflect on socio-cultural experiences of grief through Freud’s conception of mourning and melancholia (see Freud 1955a). They distinguish the two terms by their temporal propensity to shape spaces and places beyond the present. Regarding mourning as a psychosomatic response to loss that eases with the passing of time, they define it as an outward expression of individual or collective grief, temporally and spatially bound by the past as past events, or rather those passed, are laid to rest (Eng and Kazanjian 2003). This is not to say that mourning cannot be prolonged over time and space. Rather, mourning is concerned with attaining acceptance for one’s loss in order to move forward with it (Eng and Kazanjian 2003, 3).

As an emotional response and state of being tied to past attachments, mourning forecloses the persistence of chronic or manic grief into the future as grief eventually resolves with acceptance. In melancholia, on the other hand, “the past remains steadfastly alive in the present” as its affective attachments are timeless and enduring (Eng and Kazanjian 2003, 4). As Eng and Kazanjian continue,

Melancholia’s persistent struggle with its lost objects ... [is] a continuous engagement with loss and its remains. This engagement generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future. (2003, 4)

Consistent with the psychoanalytic literature on trauma and melancholia (see LaCapra 1994, 2001), melancholy endures both spatially and temporally into the future as the question of ‘what is lost’ is consistently rediscovered and reassessed in relation to what and who remains. As Eng and Kazanjian concur,

as soon as the question ‘What is lost?’ is posed, it invariably slips into the question ‘What remains? ... loss is inseparable from what remains, for what is lost is known only by what remains of it, by how these remains are produced, read, and sustained. (2003, 2, emphasis added)

How World Trade Center remains are processed, interpreted, and sustained is therefore critical to the formation of 9/11 memory in situ and its role in eliciting or deterring cultural healing at and beyond the afflicted site.

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is imbued with “affective attachments” to this traumatic past and the lost souls residing at Ground Zero (see Gopinath 2010; 2018). As struggles over loss and the meaning of death in absentia continue to shape 9/11 remembrance at the heritage complex, I now turn my attention to the site’s affective attachments—the emotional connections “that are experienced sensorially ... through the body” and cannot be easily quantified “through conventional measurements and indices” (Gopinath 2018, 144). This next section contemplates how everyday experiences and feelings of place are negotiated throughout World Trade Center redevelopment and the creation of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. As an active archive of blood, flesh, and bone, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is impregnated with emotional sentiments and unresolved feelings, and of interest to me here is how we come to understand those feelings critically. The subsequent section thus theorizes how emotions and feelings of place effectively attach themselves to—and operate within—sites of difficult memory. I offer examples illustrating how anxiety, fear, anger, and grief continue to shape meaning at the mnemonic site, thwarting more critical interpretations of both history and memory.

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