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  • Writer's pictureKim Sajet

Collective Mourning, Powerfully Shown

Updated: May 28, 2019

I've written before about secular pilgrimage and in particular the idea of "communitas," whereby people gather together to remember past experiences and build new memories – to be changed in some fundamental way – together. Currently I'm reading Joseph Heinrich's The Secret of Our Success, that blends genetics and biology with anthropology and psychology to offer a more scientific view upon the idea of shared cultural experiences. Heinrich's book argues that the success of homo sapiens as a species is not our big brains and our ability to work out individual problems per se, but our "culture-gene coevolution;" the genetic change over time that has come about by collectively working together. Apparently humans have more social organization than the rest of the primate order combined and psychological evolution—through cultural transmission—helps us build new knowledge out of prior knowledge and adapt to new environments. To quote Heinrich ". . . cultural learning reaches directly into our brains and changes the neurological values we place on things and people, and in doing so, it also sets the standards by which we judge ourselves."(p. 36)

This idea that we have only advanced—and can continue to advance—together, made me think about the idea of historical reoccurrence this Memorial Day. I have long noted that one of the most impactful aspects of our military memorials is seeing the sheer numbers of those who died though repetition, patterns, and homogeneity. Think about Arlington Cemetery and the rows and rows of white headstones marking the graves that, to paraphrase General Nimitz, powerfully shows that our military heroes fought together, died together, and now sleep side-by-side. [ Figure 1] I remember how on my first visit, I was amazed at how few memorials exist for individuals—with perhaps the most famous exception being President J. F. Kennedy. The few sculpted portraits of notable people are generally to be found at the cemetery's perimeter before you enter the park. The individual and unique grave is de-emphasized in favor of the collective outpouring of uniform grief that defines our nation's wars.

Figure 1. Arlington National Cemetery

The visual repetition of collective mourning is similarly present in Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial (1979-80) this time with the names of the dead—like the stones at Arlington—rising out of the ground in a ribbon of etched black marble. [Figure 2] On an overcast day like the one shown, the memorial reads like a tear in the earth, a rupture of nature. As described in Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried, the dead are ". . . under the mud and water, folded-in with the war . . ."

Figure 2. The Vietnam Memorial, Washington D.C.

The exhibition The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017-2018, featured the installation of artist Emily Prince, whose training as an archivist led her to collect, catalogue, and arrange rooms full of soldiers' portraits whom had served in Iraq and Afghanistan according to a chronology of when they died (day, month, year). [Figure 3] What made it so powerful was the number of individuals that blended—like Arlington and the Vietnam Memorial—into a universal symbol of loss that visitors walked into and were surrounded by. Regularly monitoring the Military Times website and recording the dead through portraits, Prince noted "The numbers kept coming up in daily reports. Five here, fourteen there, one day after another. And then the growing figure mounting to over a thousand."

Figure 3. Emily Prince, "American servicemen and women who have lost died in Iraq and Afghanistan," Exhibition installation 2017. National Portrait Gallery

Unfortunately war is not the only place of "communitas" around shared loss wrought by human tragedy. The 9/11 Memorial in New York borrows from the Vietnam Memorial in its approach with nearly 3,000 etched names recorded in black marble , only this time surrounded by cascading water extending deep underground, in echo of the two World Trade Center towers that fell. [Figure 4] While the more recent National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, calls out the horrible history of lynching with 800 coffin-like effigies representing every county or jurisdiction and over 4,000 victims, suspended with repetitive horror along a downward sloping floor extending into the sky. [ Figure 5] Perhaps this visual juxtaposition of depth versus height, dark versus light, earth versus air, shows a cultural adaptation to collective messaging that makes sense; for while 9/11 could be said to have been unexpected except to a prescient few; lynching occurred in plain sight over decades of terror, and was both carried-out and witnessed by many.

Figure 4. 9/11 Memorial, New York. Image by Vladimir Ribakov

Figure 5. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama. Image by Larry Bleiberg

It has often been said that history repeats itself, and philosophers extending all the way back to the Ancient World have offered explanations as to why war has been a constant human activity. For Homer (ca. 750 BCE) men fought partly for family honor and partly because they were the playthings of the Gods, for Socrates (ca. 473 - 399 BCE) it was because we abandoned higher-order reasoning and philosophy, and for Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) it was because the politically and socially powerful could manipulate others weaker than themselves. Only fairly recently has historical recurrence and warfare been discussed in the light of species co-evolution and, as Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind discusses, the legacy of tribal communities working together to most efficiently gain resources for the benefit for everyone within the group. The silver lining is that collective well being is focused inwards and not naturally driven towards harming outsiders for no apparent reason (p. 253).

If war is a part of human evolution centered around coevolution and historical adaptation — when the "I" of the individual becomes the "We" of comrades-in-arms — large-scale mourning is also a logical outpouring of our collective humanity. The visual repetition of individual graves, names and portraits on large memorials dedicated to those who have loss their lives—often on our behalf—is a powerful symbol of "communitas" and our intensively shared cultural loss. As the scholar and author Joseph Campbell noted: "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself," and the way we mourn those who gave their present for our futures is a direct reflection of the respect we show them in memoriam.

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