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.

Hiroshima and Auschwitz are sites of disasters that predate modern DNA-identification techniques. The possibility of DNA analysis changed forever our relationship to the human remains of historical disasters. Many victims caught in the inferno of the World Trade Center were incinerated, turned to dust that floated into the air that New Yorkers breathed, literally taking the victims into their lungs and bodies. Death’s work lent the disaster echoes of Auschwitz. For the rest, death left parts of bodies, sometimes as much as a limb but often as little as a fingernail. These fragments mostly came from those who fell or jumped from the fires in the upper floors, those who somehow ended up in cracks or crevices of the twisted steel, or those who were on the ground near the collapsing towers that crushed and dismembered them. These dead left 22,000 body parts scattered and buried in the pile. In time and through careful DNA analysis, more than half of those pieces of flesh and bone were identified, many for the same victim (for one person investigators found 300 parts). Some families had multiple funerals in the course of this process. Yet despite the advances in DNA identification, 8,000 body parts for what are now 1,115 victims could not be identified by current techniques.

The ability and responsibility to perform effective disaster victim identification, or DVI, is today a central feature of international humanitarian relief. Interpol and the International Committee of the Red Cross have in recent years established guidelines to aid disaster relief agencies and emergency managers when they are faced with identifying mass disaster victims. After horrors such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, local officials are expected to preserve and identify their own citizens and also the bodies of visitors—and to repatriate remains if and when possible. Advances in the speed and accuracy of DNA testing (pushed forward by the scale of the post-Sept. 11 identification work) and the use of digital photography and social media have encouraged the practitioners of DVI. But each new technological advance increases concerns over security and privacy. Do the dead have a right to privacy, do they have a right to be buried individually, do they have the right to be preserved (in whole or in part) until they can be identified? International protocols on DVI raise more questions than answers on these thorny ethical questions, and they offer no real guidance on what to do when the will to memorialize runs ahead of the time required to identify the dead, as it does today in lower Manhattan.

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, says that useful models are available in the long history of Native American attempts to regain and maintain control over sacred sites. “The key concept,” he notes, “is consultation. Native Americans have insisted on their rights to help determine the ultimate fate of their ancestors’ remains. Museum professionals do this through conversation, by seeking to include descendants and kin, so that [Native Americans] have a voice and choice in how human remains are cared for.” Colwell-Chanthaphonh points out that Sept. 11 museum officials did not hold extensive discussions with victims’ families before moving ahead with their plans to store the remains at the museum complex. “Family members have the right to decide the fate of their loved ones,” Colwell-Chanthaphonh says. “No city official or museum administrator should be empowered to make exclusive decisions without the consent of the families. How would consent be determined? Through consultation and open dialogue. This is why the 9/11 museum has violated the rights of so many victims’ families.”

Another path was possible. In the days and weeks following the crash of Flight 93 into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the county coroner worked to identify the victims. As with the other Sept. 11 crash sites, the human remains were mostly destroyed and scattered. Only 8 percent of the remains recovered at Shanksville could be identified (though this was enough to account for each victim). When identification efforts ceased, the entire crash site was designated as a final resting place. The chasm left by the plane was filled in, and grass was planted. Today this “field of honor” is open only to families of the victims who died in the crash. The field is visible to visitors, but it is clearly demarcated from the line of marble slabs bearing the names of the dead, the groves of memorial trees, and the site of the future museum. The division of sacred from nonsacred space may seem arbitrary, and yet the division matters to families and to those who wish to pay their respects without treading on the dead.

No such clarity is available in lower Manhattan. Everything seems jarring and contradictory at ground zero. It will be, but also won’t be, a cemetery. It will be a museum with lots of noisy visitors, children wanting to touch the bruised fire engine, crying babies, people snacking and taking photographs. And the museum is an integral part of the memorial itself, where water falls for no particular reason from 70 feet high into two ominous square holes. The memorial is a wildly abstract, massively expensive and grandiose tribute to the lost buildings more than to the dead. Will the museum be flooded again, as it was during Hurricane Sandy? And how exactly are visitors expected to behave knowing that the unknown dead from that day remain just behind the wall? Kai Erikson’s chilling observation about the lasting effects of nuclear radiation seems applicable here: “The book of accounts is never closed.” The capacity to identify the dead using DNA analysis is extraordinary, yet it has apparently given us no guidance on how to build a meaningful memorial to the dead we cannot name.