What meaning and purpose do memorials have in American life?
All over America, public memorials and monuments attract millions of visitors each year, while in private, we establish memorials for loved ones as a way of coping with the grief felt following a death, or as a remembrance of a person, pet or historic event. What does our passion for memorials say about us as a culture and as a nation?
Uniquely American Memorials
Memorials date back to the founding of our nation. In 1783, Congress proposes a memorial to recognize George Washington that finally comes to realization on July 4, 1848, with the placing of the first cornerstone for the Washington Monument. A little more than 100 years later, the country dedicates the completed work, in 1885.
Other early memorials honor the fallen soldiers of war and significant battles, such as those of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. By the Civil War in 1862, the War Department begins recording burials and starts to acquire land for national cemeteries, such as Arlington National Cemetery. Military commanders also designate sites right on the battlefields to bury those lost. The act of memorializing to honor the dead with public monuments becomes a custom, and its meaning evolves to reminders for the living and tributes for veterans of war. Visiting the USS Arizona National Memorial, which rests beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, is a sobering remembrance of the sacrifices of World War II and the heroism of the Greatest Generation.
It is the building of the Vietnam Veterans Wall in 1982 that represents this different kind of memorial: as a symbol of controversial or difficult historical events with the purpose of healing deep scars in American society. More recently, tragic events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the campus shootings at Virginia Tech are remembered in places that are hallowed ground in our culture. Memorials can capture both the triumph and tragedy of the American experience, like natural disasters, scientific discovery, heroic deeds and historic firsts. For instance, we memorialize our history through historical reconstruction. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Old Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, Old Fort Niagara in New York and Tombstone in Arizona are just a few where history is brought to life with reenactments and presidential impersonations – where visitors experience that history firsthand.
Why We Establish Memorials
- Memory and Meaning – Often thought of as “forever a place for collective memory,” memorials inspire family rituals and community celebrations, storytelling and reminiscing and finding meaning after a loved one is gone or an event has passed. Collective memory promotes positive healing.
- Grief – Memorials are part of mourning and the bereavement process, as a place for the living to express grief in honor of loved ones lost.
- Education – Educational programs, exhibits, interpretive signs, guest speakers, guided tours, brochures, videos and more help explain the meaning of a memorial and its significance in American life.
- Artifacts – Visitors often leave behind artifacts such as flowers, photographs, stuffed toys, combat boots, military awards and unit patches, flags and personal notes, to connect with the person, place or event that is being honored.
- Name Lists – Naming personalizes the memorial both for those lost and the survivors, often transcending the limitations of place and time.
- Hallowed Ground – Many memorials are built on the land where an event occurred or at a place of importance for an individual, creating a special sense of place and connection for the living.
Nowadays, many memorials and monuments also have a website -or and interactive programs that allow virtual visitors to visit anytime, from any location. People visit these “cyber-shrines” to learn about the people, animals, history or nature of the memorial, to record their thoughts and to extend condolences.
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