Naming the Dead

David Simpson

Among the many things that changed after 11 September was the policy on obituaries in the New York Times. Since the attack on the World Trade Center, the newspaper has been printing fifteen or so brief remembrances a day of some of the approximately five thousand people who died in the towers, in the planes and during the rescue efforts. The leaders of corporations and other more or less public figures who are ordinarily assured a place on the obituary page continue to appear there. The full page of photographs and memorials is for the firefighters, window-cleaners, janitors and waiters whose lives and deaths would normally have gone unrecorded by the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States, the newspaper of record for much of the nation. The Times is declaring itself as a paper for all New Yorkers, all Americans, and is paying proper homage to the ubiquity of death and the mournful democracy of grief. A parallel series of memorials to those killed in the attack on the Pentagon also appeared in the paper, part of the separate section devoted day after day to the events of 11 September and their consequences.

I’m sure I am not the only one who found these obituaries, with their blurred images of smiling people captured on film at mostly happy moments, more moving, more indicative of what happened and could never be forgotten, than the exercises in managed grief put on by the TV stations. One reader wrote a letter suggesting that these brief obituaries should be made part of a formal memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. They are not in fact straightforward obituaries, because they preserve a decorous ambiguity, a hope that the subjects might still come out alive or be found wandering the streets of Manhattan; they are called ‘glimpses of some of the victims’ or ‘glimpses of some of those who have been declared dead’. There is an effort at an exact record, telling us for example (on 8 October) that ‘4979 could be missing’ over and above the 393 dead. The record of the mundane, appearing day after day – this person enjoyed vacations in Florida, that person loved her nieces and nephews, this person sent money home every week to South America, that person loved to cook – began to make me realise, day after day, and in a more than abstract way, how many lives make five thousand, and how indiscriminate death really is. The notices recall simple things, presumably the things that the bereaved wished to report. Though it is unlikely that everyone has been or will be remembered in this way, the mathematical sublime has cast its spell.

At the end of the fourth act of Henry V, the King asks his herald for details of the English dead at Agincourt. The herald hands over a paper, and the King reads:

Edward, the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire;
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty.

The French have lost ten thousand, of whom all but sixteen hundred were persons of ‘blood and quality’. There is debate over the degree to which Shakespeare intends irony at the King’s expense at this point in the cycle, but there is only a slim case to be made for the view that Henry is here being exposed as an insensitive elitist (‘esquire’ of course takes its older sense, and specifies a person of substance). Only four English notables have died, along with 25 others. They are not ‘of name’, and pass unnamed. By 1918, as those of us brought up in British towns and villages know all too well, the scope of commemoration has spread to all ranks, and all are named. Their names are legion – 90 men (and boys) in my home-town of Swaffham, Norfolk, which had a population of no more than three thousand in 1914. I used to think that the list must include the dead from the neighbouring villages which, perhaps, did not erect monuments of their own (they were paid for largely by public subscription). But four miles up the road, Castleacre has its own war memorial, its own list of 43 dead in the Great War. Fifty-four ‘boys’ from my old school, a small country grammar, ‘gave’ their lives in the two wars. Eleven thousand Norfolk men and boys, 2.5 per cent of the population of the county, died in the Great War alone. The figures are numbing, and remain so as one moves to the larger towns and cities. York Minster commemorates the deaths of 8814 men of the York and Lancaster Regiment and more than 9400 of the Yorkshire Light Infantry.

It is in the great cathedrals that one can begin to plot the taking on of names by those not ‘of name’. York Minster records all names and ranks of the regimental dead in the South Africa War (1899-1902). It does the same for the dead in the Crimean War (1853-56), the 42 who died in the Sudan (1884-87) and the 40 who perished in the Maori wars (1845-66), though here only death in combat merits a name; there are ‘also 126 from other causes’. The Indian wars which lasted from 1871 to 1884 list by name only nine officers, but the 18 men who died at sea in June 1854, aboard what I assume was a Naval transport ship, are all named. The earliest memorial I found referring to the rank and file, in a less than systematic walk around the Minster, dates from the ‘Wars of 1808-15’. Here forty or so officers of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry are mentioned by name, while 610 men of other ranks are said to be listed by name on a scroll in the depository. On my next visit I shall try to see it. Some intense feeling of melancholy, or commitment to the burden of the past, drives such sombre curiosity. The modern British novel is heavily involved in embodying and exploring this impulse. I am not immune. I cannot recall exactly when it came on me, when there emerged out of the general wash of memories of childhood the particular one of standing by the Cenotaph, often in the rain (and always so in my memory), singing hymns in honour of the dead. Does it have anything to do with my love of poppies? Perhaps it was after visiting, long after almost everyone else I know, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, with its conscious allusion to the famous Lutyens memorial at Thiepval (and by extension to its more modest incarnation in a Norfolk market town). Or was it an earlier visit to the Apache graveyard at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, shockingly memorable not for the tomb of Geronimo but for the rows of tiny headstones marking the last resting places of dead infants? Do I bear a sense of guilt for not having been particularly aware of the 90 Swaffham men when I looked at their names as a child who felt his own life in every limb and knew nothing about death? Whenever and why it was that things changed, it was then that I must have become fully Postmodern, fully a member of my generation in cultural as well as biological terms.

For death is not only biological and personal, but also cultural. The dead look different at different times and in different places. Acts of commemoration are staged for us and among us by the media, not just in novels but in such big-budget Hollywood movies as Schindler’s List, Titanic and Saving Private Ryan. The curatorial logic of Tate Modern has decided on the conjunction of History/Memory/Society as one of the sets of cognates intended to encourage visitors to make meaningful associations: it is as if society exists by way of history and memory. Military deaths, or so it would seem from my somewhat superficial survey, have been recorded more or less democratically since early in the 19th century; everyone who dies in combat is recorded, or is likely to be recorded. If the Great War did indeed create modern memory, as Paul Fussell’s magisterial book suggests, it was in this one respect at least prefigured by the smaller wars of the previous century: to die fighting for one’s country merited being named and remembered by name. Of course, it was seldom a case of dying for one’s country, any more than it was in 1914. Historians have found it notoriously difficult to justify the deaths of the Great War, or to specify convincingly why it had to happen and what benefits were achieved by such sacrifice of lives. Presumably the organisers and publicists of the smaller wars of Victoria’s reign felt that naming the dead, all the dead, was the least they could do to compensate those mothers and fathers who lost their children for a place or territory they themselves would never see and did not care about. England’s dead, as Felicia Hemans’s poem tells us, are all over the place, in the oceans, deserts and polar wastes, not always properly buried and often in bits and pieces. In the face of such indignity, a name on a monument seems a small consolation.

The people who died on 11 September were not soldiers and sailors, however, but civilians. In its reports on the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, the New York Times grappled with the task of recording the deaths of those not of name who drowned along with the rich and famous. A sense of this can be got from the Special Commemorative Edition of facsimile pages put out by the same newspaper on 15 April 1998, in response to the box-office success of James Cameron’s film. The large print captions are devoted to the ‘notable passengers’ and ‘noted men’ on board the ship, and there are extended quasi-obituaries of many of them. But the Times also made an effort to record the names of all the missing and all the survivors, including the third-class steerage passengers, and to tabulate the exact numbers of each, in figures that changed from day to day as information came in. The third-class dead are named, but there are no obituaries. We have moved beyond Shakespeare’s image of the aftermath of Agincourt: those not of name are now named. But this is not a narrative of progress. The Titanic was a one-off disaster, and perhaps the New York Times is assuming the same exceptionalism in its reporting of 11 September. The London Times, faced with reporting the Blitz, did not give the names of the huge number of civilian casualties, only those of the military victims. The ‘Roll of Honour’ contained all names of all ranks who died or were missing in action in all of the services, including the merchant navy, and extending to the crews of trawlers enlisted as minesweepers. Officers made it onto the formal obituary page, sometimes with an appended ‘personal tribute’: one man, besides being an officer, was a fine mechanic, loved sailing, and was good at drawing and sketching. Those whose families presumably felt that they were of importance were listed on the front page under the categories of ‘On Active Service’ and ‘Missing’. ARP wardens who died in air-raids were named, perhaps because they were more or less military personnel. And one couple who had a miraculous escape were named in the issue of 11 November 1940: Mr and Mrs A.H. Button. Otherwise, the civilian dead are not mentioned by name. They are, however, at times personalised. Here is one paragraph from the Times of 12 November 1940:

Six members of one family, including a three-week-old baby, were killed when a high-explosive bomb demolished a house in the London area. The family were celebrating the christening of the baby, and its christening cake was afterwards found among the wreckage. The killed were a retired police sergeant who had returned to police duties at the outbreak of war, his wife and her mother, their daughter and her husband and child. An unmarried daughter was the only survivor.

To be sure, events were unfolding at such a pace in so many places that the gathering of personal data about the civilian dead would have been an overwhelming task. Nevertheless, one gets the sense of a different culture at work. Churchill’s War Cabinet and its media outlets were by no means immune to the appeal of good propaganda, as the pages of photographs of getting in the harvest all over England in the autumn of 1940 make perfectly clear. But for some reason there is no urge to represent the lives and faces of the dead, or even to name them. I shall not try to judge this, or to decide between class-ridden prejudice and honest delicacy as the motive. We should at least explore the idea that decorum was involved: odd as it may seem to us now, death was deemed a private affair about which those who needed to know would know by other channels. The pathos of the dead family is real, but different from that seen in recent issues of the New York Times. What is it then that governs the naming practice, besides the obvious and compelling urge to record the past lives of the beloved dead?

We are not the first to ponder this question. Wordsworth did so in his three ‘Essays Upon Epitaphs’, published between 1810 and 1812 at a time when England’s dead had for some years been accumulating in various places. Wordsworth does not engage with the military deaths of his own generation, though we can assume that these must have been on everyone’s mind; he writes instead about the epitaph tradition in general, and particularly as it is evident in English churchyards, as if the whole matter of wasted life and unrecovered or dismembered or hopelessly distant bodies could be gathered within a domestic and familiar trope, the green thought in the green shade. Wordsworth notes that the epitaph tends to record the good in everyone, as if they had inhabited a world without cruelty or evil, or mere human failings: ‘the affections are their own justification,’ he says, and give rise to ‘truth hallowed by love – the joint offspring of the worth of the dead and the affections of the living’. So, too, the New York Times gives us a world in which every one of the victims was engaged in some visibly good life: taking care of others, bringing joy, lovingly looking after children. Wordsworth says: ‘every man has a character of his own, to the eye that has skill to perceive it.’ This is also the conclusion to be drawn from the ‘glimpses of the victims’ of 11 September. Most of all, none of them is described as if jobs and careers were what mattered to them most, and many are remembered in terms that barely mention what they did. The effect is to represent a common humanity, and to play down the degree to which the World Trade Center was a complex subculture organised according to a highly divided system of labour with massively discrepant rewards. We read of the man who loved his pet fish, and talked to them, but learn nothing about his job. And when the victim was an investment banker, we hear mostly about how much he loved to sail. There is the firefighter who loved to cook, the claims adjuster who fed stray cats, and the man who kissed his sleeping children every night before he went to bed.

Is it possible to think and talk about these matters without appearing to dishonour the dead? Many in the US probably think that it is not. These are the people who regard it as traitorous to suggest that suicide bombers are not cowards, and who are comfortable with President Bush referring over and over again to bin Laden as ‘the evil one’. But it is important to insist that questioning the prevailing rhetoric is another and perhaps better way of honouring the dead. An editorial in the New York Times tells us that ‘each profile is only a snapshot, a single still frame lifted from the unrecountable complexity of a lived life,’ and acknowledges, albeit unwittingly, that there is a pattern here: ‘We recognise the archetypes that define the ways these stories are told. The tales of courtship and aspiration, the ways these people relaxed and how they related to their children – these are really our own stories, translated into a slightly different, next-door key.’ The word ‘archetypes’ is loaded: it tells us that we are in the presence of eternally recurring human motives or qualities, so that ‘our own stories’ comes to designate not the specific desires of a group of middle-class Americans, or perhaps just the manufactured image of what that specific group should desire, but the narratives of a universal human instinct. The editorial becomes even more transparently ideological as we are told that ‘nearly everyone who died in the towers that day was either living in the midst of an achieved ambition or had set out on the way to achieving it,’ so that ‘these profiles also offer a map of fulfilment.’ The ambition of the man who washed the windows might have been rather different from that of the person about to become a partner in a law firm or investment corporation, but that question is never raised, indeed it is aggressively displaced. The same editorial goes on to say that ‘the generosity, the selflessness, that emanates from these stories is remarkable.’ Getting, spending and fulfilling ambitions are not, it is to be made clear, at all at odds with the most lavish habits of doing good to others. The obituaries are being put to work as a response to the much-touted decline of civil society analysed, for example, in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. They are telling us, at this moment of extreme vulnerability, that corporate America (or international finance), in partnership with infinite reserves of personal charity, was creating a wonderful life that has now so tragically been destroyed for so many.

The patriotic effort merges into a nationalist one, arguably an imperial one. The epitaph, as Wordsworth knew well, takes its credibility from being in close proximity to the remains of the dead person it recalls. As such it ‘feeds also local attachment, which is the tap-root of the tree of Patriotism’. But the ‘glimpses of the victims’ of 11 September are not epitaphs, and are not in any proximity to the remains of the dead except in a purely associative and virtual sense: they died in New York and this is the New York Times. The NYPD has been busy assembling urns each containing a handful of the dust from the disaster site for presentation to the bereaved; and the scientists are trying hard but against impossible odds to match DNA samples to the few body parts that have been discovered. So the rhetoric of family values, communitarian commitment and seemingly adequate leisure (for cooking, loving one’s children, travelling, helping others) is detached not only from the fuller lives of the dead themselves (the lives in which they might have been bad-tempered, or hated their jobs) but from their physical remains.

Notice also the immediacy with which the media described and defined the site of the former World Trade Center as ‘Ground Zero’. This is technically correct, in that the phrase is used to describe the place beneath and around an exploding bomb, and the fuel-filled jet planes were that, though in an unfamiliar form. But the most habitual use of the term, as the OED tells us, is to designate an atomic explosion: the Trinity Site in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, various sites in the Australian desert (hence the title of the 1988 film by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles), in Nevada or Siberia, in the Gobi desert, in the South Pacific. The terrorist attack is thus assimilated to the many instances of nuclear explosions, all caused by nation-states and many caused by ‘us’ and people on ‘our side’. The physical equivalence is dubious, and to say so is not at all to diminish the scope of the tragedy, but merely to question the uses to which it is being put. The declaration of moral equivalence is more troubling. One might say that this event places the US fully and for the first time within the community of almost all other nations, those who have suffered significant civilian casualties on their own soil. (The invocation of Pearl Harbor is interesting: there the casualties were mostly military, and Hawaii is not and never has been fully American soil, fully the homeland, a fact which is both resented and cherished by many who live there.) But 11 September is being used to suggest an outrageous exceptionalism – as if this act had come as a bolt from the blue and not as the latest in a cumulative series of attacks on American citizens, property and military personnel over a number of years, a series that has a complex and discussable history. Surely we have not yet fully suffered with those we saw suffer, or, some would say, have made suffer; surely this one event cannot stand as adequate absolution for or empirical equivalent to the ravaged places of the world in whose destinies we have been implicated, and which we show no signs of ceasing to violate.

The victims, it seems, cannot have a voice in this discussion, or express any real difference of opinion. Despite the editorial declaration that these were lives of ‘unrecountable complexity’, what has come down to us is a very simple picture, a picture of all-American wholeness and national health and happiness. Or capitalist health, perhaps. I am not suggesting that we resort to that compulsive and equally generic maliciousness so beloved of authors and readers of many British obituaries: these can be just as impoverished, especially when they evince meanness of spirit beneath the pious assumption of simply setting the record straight. But I do feel uncomfortable about endorsing a response to these deaths which risks taking them in vain. I am not one of those sunnily disposed persons who thinks that all suffering, if it is only real enough and gives rise to the right responses, can lead to good. Perhaps this is one consequence of those November Sundays standing in front of the War Memorial. These deaths do not mean that the world will be made safer for freedom, even for our rather circumscribed version of that concept. We have been inundated, lately, with encomiums to the ‘greatest generation’, those who lived through and fought in World War Two, and part of the appeal of this memory to us now must be that they can indeed be represented as having fought against something for which the word ‘evil’ is more than usually appropriate: Hitler’s Nazis, and above all the death camps (whose currency in the national imagination, as Peter Novick has demonstrated, has not always been as high as it is now, even though the horrors of those places have not altered). There is some likelihood, in this climate of positive memorialising, that the dead of 11 September will have their names added to the roster of those who have not died in vain, those who lived in freedom and who died for it, not, to be sure, by choice, but, implicitly, because they loved and enjoyed it as much as they did.

So what can we say about the prospects for a monument at the site of Ground Zero? The idea is being widely discussed (although the value of the real estate might well dictate a modest outcome). The last great monument was that commemorating the Vietnam War, the submerged wall of names and dates on the Mall in Washington DC. This has been quite divisive, and has generated a crop of alternative memorials across the country that set out to mimic the traditional icon of figures standing dressed for battle, which was what many veterans and others felt that they deserved. For them, Vietnam should look like Iwo Jima. Maya Lin’s Washington wall was in fact consciously conservative, admitting the inspiration of the Lutyens memorial, and intending, as Lin herself has said, to ‘create a memorial that everyone would be able to respond to, regardless of whether one thought our country should or should not have participated in the war’. She wanted a memorial that would help us ‘acknowledge the death in order to move on’, one that would be ‘apolitical, harmonious with the site, and conciliatory’, and that would ‘create a unity between the nation’s past and present’. The dead and the missing are listed together, so that everyone has a name regardless of where the body might be. Many people have indeed found the experience of standing at the wall helpful in terms of reconciliation and ‘moving on’. But many others have not, have found it recurrently upsetting and not easy to subsume within a cheerful ethic of getting on with one’s life. The political, personal and cultural tensions that are called up by the word ‘Vietnam’ are not such as can be laid to rest by the deliberate effort of a brilliant architect. The tale is bigger than the teller, and has not yet come to an end. ‘The Wall’, as it is called, still attracts people who find themselves weeping uncontrollably, and has become the site of a second-order commemoration made up of items which are laid before it and regularly collected up for respectful storage as consecrated objects. No amount of attention to the ‘greatest generation’ has yet been able to quieten the memory of Vietnam.

What, finally, will the glimpses of the victims of 11 September add up to? It’s hard to say anything about the realm of culture at a time when our primary business is general woe, and admission of grief and loss. It may be that the memorial instinct is part and parcel of a wider, incremental disbelief in the narrative of progress, so that, despite Maya Lin’s apparent intentions, we find ourselves looking back rather than forward. This might be a healthy thing. Or it may be that these particular glimpses are presented as an antidote to any anxiety of retrospection, an upbeat affirmation of the best of lives in the best of possible worlds, a ‘map of fulfilment’ that seeks to persuade us to go on carrying the torch for trade in a world centred on New York. If it serves to comfort those left behind to grieve, it will be of value. But we owe the dead more than their nearest relatives and the New York Times might think; and we owe ourselves a careful assessment of the rhetoric we are being offered. Thinking about who is named in death, and why and how and where, is a small beginning.