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Mourning in America
The thousands of ‘missing’ posters in Lower Manhattan are a form of public keening not seen in this country since the AIDS Quilt


NEW YORK CITY’S Union Square is normally a gritty, heavily populated urban center. But when I recently visited the square — less than a mile from the wreckage of the World Trade Center — it had been transformed into a site of mass mourning. Pictures by local grammar-school kids of firefighters holding hoses and hatchets were taped next to posters that pleaded for " peace " and " justice. " Tall, flickering religious candles from local bodegas illuminated the plastic-wrapped, ghostly portraits of Saint Roch and Saint Lucy attached to their glass casings. Jewish yahrzeit candles burned steadily beside Christian crosses propped up against trees. Impulsive, heartfelt messages written in English, Yiddish, and Arabic were scrawled on the macadam paths and cottage-like buildings. nyfd: we love you, r.i.p., pray for those who are lost, save us. Flowers — some fresh, some wilting, most disintegrating — were placed, shoved, mounted, crowded, and strewn everywhere. But most conspicuous and arresting of all were the photocopied color pictures of the missing men and women who had been at the World Trade Center when the planes hit and the towers fell. The signs were fastened to trees, walls, fences, makeshift monuments. Later that day, as I walked around Lower Manhattan, I was overwhelmed by them — thousands upon thousands were posted on store windows, bulletin boards, church doors, bus-stop shelters, lampposts, and phone booths. The cityscape had been literally transfigured by the pain, loss, and grief embodied in these posters.

Walking around this New York — a city I have known well for at least 40 years — I was staggered. Although New York overflows with emotion, it is never this nakedly vulnerable. Such open displays of bereavement are as abnormal for this city as the news footage of the planes hitting the twin towers.

In many ways, the posters signal a profound change not just in New York, but throughout the country: they testify to the democratization of death. Residents of Manhattan are not mourning a great fallen leader or public figure. They’re mourning thousands of perfectly ordinary people like themselves, who died because they were in the right place at the wrong time — not because of who they were, or what they did, or who they aspired to be.

THE FIRST time Americans gathered as a nation for such an openly emotional act of communal grief was at the unveiling of the Vietnam War Memorial in 1982, in Washington, DC. The looming, solemn granite tablets became a cross between a town square, where people could meet and talk, and a national depository of artifacts — from Bronze Stars to teddy bears to letters. With its mementos and wisps of memory, the monument became a sort of Jungian Smithsonian for the collective American unconscious. Something similar is ritually enacted, on a more local scale, at the site of the memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing.

For the most part, however, Americans mourn the way we live: privately. For a nation that, in many ways, is so public — think of our confessional talk shows — we really are a very private people. Rarely do we congregate in large numbers except at sporting events, in shopping malls, at national political conventions every four years. We spend most of our time in small, self-selected groups that reinforce our specific religious, ethnic, gender, sexual, racial, and class identities. Americans tend to worship privately, join narrowly defined organizations, and live in neighborhoods marked more by homogeneity than by variety. The decade’s long slide into gated communities is simply the logical conclusion to this trend, just as privately owned shopping malls — complete with private security guards — have replaced the publicness of Main Street. Is it any surprise that mourning, one of the most personal forms of emotional expression, should also be private?

It may sound like a cliché, but this privateness is a lingering remnant of our British Puritan heritage. (After all, Puritanism was concerned, in part, with political control: people are more easily controlled as individuals than as a group.) Certainly, prevailing social codes and standards throughout US history have emphasized emotional restraint in public. At the end of the 19th century, for example, one of the principal complaints about the behavior of immigrant groups — especially Italians, Irish, and Eastern European Jews — had to do with their animated public life: the Italian saint’s festival, the neighborhood Irish pub, the Jewish street market. Similarly, African-American culture — so public in its music and its vibrant social and street life — has been alien to mainstream white American sensibilities.

Not surprisingly, these " foreigners " were the very groups that, on occasion, made their mourning public. A case in point is the enormous 1911 rally in Union Square itself to commemorate the 146 young Jewish and Italian women who died on March 25 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (eerily prefiguring September 11, many of the women had jumped from high windows to escape the flames). So, too, are the large public funerals that occurred after events such as the execution of the Italian and German anarchists accused of instigating the Chicago Haymarket Riots of May 4, 1886 — riots that many believed were incited by a police agent provocateur. But even in these cases, public mourning was almost secondary to the political nature of the gatherings — which epitomized Mother Jones’s exhortation to " mourn for the dead but fight like hell for the living. "

To be sure, there have been a few notable instances of mass public lamentation in US history. The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, and of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, summoned nationwide grief of vast magnitude. The same might also be said of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and John Lennon on December 8, 1980, and the deaths of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died aboard the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986, and John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in an airplane crash on July 16, 1999. But the outpouring of emotion in these instances — the public gatherings, the funeral processions, the solemn memorials — came as people drew together to mourn the loss of a single life. The mourning was communal, but each loss was limited to a specific individual, however much the deceased might have symbolized some aspect of American greatness.

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Issue Date: October 11 - 18, 2001

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