Discord Over 9/11 Memorial's Symbolism
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
Published: January 12, 2006
THE heart of the World Trade Center memorial has been transplanted.
Construction documents released last week by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation made it clear that thousands of unidentified remains of 9/11 victims would not be entombed in the monolith planned as the memorial's bedrock-level centerpiece.
Two years ago - almost to the day - when the memorial design by Michael Arad and Peter Walker was unveiled, the public was told otherwise. "At bedrock of the north tower's footprint," said Vartan Gregorian, on behalf of the jury that chose the design, "loved ones will be able to mourn privately, in a chamber with a large stone vessel containing unidentified remains of victims that will rest at the base of the void."
In the current plan, body parts are to be kept in a climate-controlled room about 35 feet east of the vessel, under the supervision of the city's chief medical examiner. They will be easily removable from there for further examination as DNA identification techniques improve. An adjoining vestibule, open only to victims' relatives, will offer a view into the room where containers of body parts are stored.
The vessel, 30 feet square and 9 feet high in the center of the main chamber, will be symbolic.
"I just don't see the point," said Diane Horning, the president of W.T.C. Families for Proper Burial, speaking for herself. "Our loved ones aren't symbolically dead. But everything that's been given to us is symbolic."
Edie Lutnick, the executive director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund, asked: "What is the purpose? The ashen remains are in Fresh Kills in a garbage dump. Now, on the site itself, it's going to be an empty box." She said she first learned about the vessel's new role at a meeting three months ago on other issues.
Dr. Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a member of the memorial foundation board, said he learned about it from a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times.Without commenting on the latest revision, he urged a "major public presentation" of how the original design has changed in the last two years as the result of budgeting, engineering and security concerns. There ought to be regular updates, Dr. Gregorian said, "in order to avert surprises, rumors or speculation."
Yesterday, Mr. Arad said the role of the vessel and surrounding rooms had evolved, particularly after he visited the refrigerated trailers where the medical examiner currently stores the body parts in the hope that they can eventually be matched with individuals.
"We're not burying the remains," Mr. Arad said. "They have to be kept for future identification. We're essentially keeping them in medically controlled conditions."
He also said he learned from the medical examiner that "many family members wanted to see where the remains were, how they were being stored."
Asked, then, what was the purpose of the monolith itself, Mr. Arad said, "It provides a touchstone, a center, something that people can gather around."
"I can imagine people leaving flowers or candles at the base of this," he added. "People may tape pictures to it. We don't know how they will interact."
Anne Papageorge, a senior vice president of the development corporation, said, "There are many memorials or vessels that don't contain actual remains that still serve a symbolic focal purpose."
But Ms. Lutnick said she did not understand why the vessel could not have drawers on one side, if that were necessary for retrieval, and solid stone on the other sides, with the entire tomb enclosed in a see-through material if it must be climate-controlled. "It seems to me they're not trying very hard," she said.
Prof. James E. Young of the University of Massachusetts, an expert on memorials who served on the memorial jury, said, "Perhaps a small vessel with unidentified remains could be entombed in the large 'symbolic' vessel, coming to represent the rest of the remains entombed behind the wall nearby."
(Though it has been suggested that some material from the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island could be deposited in the vessel, Ms. Horning said such a token amount "would preclude proper burial of all the remains.")
SPEAKING of the monolith-as-tomb, Professor Young said in an e-mail message: "I always cautioned against making this feature too central to the role of the memorial, only because the signficance of remains varies widely among different religious traditions.
"I know that in some Christian communities, a vessel with remains (an urn with ashes, for example) occupies a pretty prominent place in memorializing the dead. In contrast, orthodox Jewish tradition proscribes certain priestly sects from treading in cemeteries at all, where human remains are present.
"The way forward, therefore, will probably be to find a balance or compromise between the literal and symbolic roles of the mortuary vessel."
He did not say it would be easy.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company