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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in