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Memorial Day and the 9/11 museum in American civil religion

By Peter Gardella


Unlike the 4th of July with its fireworks or Thanksgiving with its turkeys, Memorial Day has no special object. But the new 9/11 Museum near the World Trade Center in New York has thousands of objects. Some complain that its objects are for sale, in a gift shop and because of the admission fee. Together, the old holiday and the new museum show what has changed and what remains constant about American civil religion.

For a century after Memorial Day began, it had its own date, May 30. That was lost in 1968, when Congress passed a law moving Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. Rather than interrupting the week whenever it falls, as July 4th still does, Memorial Day became the end of a long weekend. A search for Memorial Day parades finds as many parades happening on Sunday as on Monday. Some happen on Saturday.

These parades are not nearly as important as they were in the decades following World Wars One and Two, when veterans were much more numerous than they are now. The unpopularity of Vietnam also hurt Memorial Day parades. In my childhood, all grammar school children in my town marched on Memorial Day, but now even high school bands march reluctantly. Having parades to honor war dead came to seem to be celebrating war, and after Vietnam celebrating war was unacceptable. Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day, a day for visiting and decorating graves, and this quieter ceremony persists. On Memorial Day, the president still lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a small crowd gathers for a speech.

Memorial Day Flagged Crosses, Waverly, Minnesota. By Ben Franske (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Memorial Day Flagged Crosses, Waverly, Minnesota, by Ben Franske. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
But the site of the World Trade Center drew large crowds in the first weeks after the attack. The 9/11 Memorial has been drawing millions since it opened in 2011, and the new Museum will draw millions more. It will become a pilgrimage site of American civil religion.

As Mayor Bloomberg said at the dedication ceremonies, the site of the World Trade Center will join Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a “sacred marker” and a “solemn gathering place.” The word “sacred” was used by many at the dedication, and this sense of being set apart marks the sites of civil religion. The word “solemn” was identified more than a century ago as an aspect of religious feeling by the psychologist and philosopher William James. Expressions of religion involve solemnity, respect for what is held sacred, even when triumphal pride or ecstasy may also be expressed. Such solemnity can be felt at older sites of American civil religion, like the Capitol or the White House, the Washington Monument, and the memorials to Lincoln and Jefferson. The new Martin Luther King Memorial continues a mood of solemnity combined with triumph. It’s a place where clean white stone invokes eternity.

But the 9/11 Memorial belongs to another tradition, finding the sacred in dirty objects. Twisted beams of steel and mangled fire trucks dominate a seven-story atrium. More intimate objects, like displays of sweatshirts that were for sale on that day, now covered in ash, and shoes worn by survivors as they fled the Twin Towers, and melted fax machines and rolodexes, are displayed under glass to help visitors identify with the human victims and their suffering. Voices from last cell phone calls can be heard. This power in everyday objects has appeared before in memorials to the Holocaust and in the museum on Ellis Island. Leaving objects on graves and memorials is new to American civil religion, but it is a practice with old roots, seen on the graves of slaves in the South and in the tombs of Egypt. Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial surprised groundskeepers by leaving objects at that memorial when it opened, and people left objects along the fences that separated the streets of New York from Ground Zero in the months after September 11.

Questions have been raised about the stress on objects in the new museum. Some think that unidentified human remains should not be in the same building as a museum visited by tourists. According to some family members of victims, the gift shop profits from the deaths of their loved ones to support the salaries of administrators. Some object to the cafe. Even more object to the $24 admission fee. One answer might be to keep the gift shop and cafe but to eliminate any admission fee, following the examples of Smithsonian and National Park Service sites, some of which also contain human remains.

Many new forms of American civil religion stress death and the ancestors, not God and the future. The new museum goes down into the earth to bedrock, rather than rising toward heaven. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which follows the line of its landscape and honors the dead, and the Pearl Harbor Memorial, which centers on the sunken wreck of the U.S.S. Arizona and the dead that it contains, the 9/11 Memorial and the 9/11 Museum both emphasize descent. In the Memorial, cascades of water, the largest man-made waterfalls in the world, flow from bronze parapets etched with the names of the dead into the former footprints of the Twin Towers. The sound of the water cancels street noise. The sight of the water falling into the squares at the center of each footprint suggests the underworld journey.

But next to the Memorial and Museum rises the spire of One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. This pairing echoes the rise of the Statue of Liberty, next to the buildings of Ellis Island where immigrants were examined and sometimes rejected. However much expressions of American civil religion change, they still affirm personal freedom, the triumph of the human person over all difficulties, and even over death.

Peter Gardella is Professor of World Religions at Manhattanville College and author of American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford, 2014). His previous books are Innocent Ecstasy (Oxford, 1985), on sex and religion in America; Domestic Religion, on American attitudes toward everyday life; and American Angels: Useful Spirits in the Material World. He is now working on The World’s Religions in New York City: A History and Guide and on Birds in the World’s Religions (with Laurence Krute).

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