When mourning a loss in public, trying to say everything right and sum up a lost life may be the worst thing that you can do
On September 10 I attended a funeral service for a member of my family who was a mother of triplets, all aged sixteen. As a part of the traditional Catholic mass, her two sons, her daughter, and her husband each devoted a brief eulogy embracing the enduring vitality of love and esteem for a woman who was the pillar of their family. And as you might expect, each remembrance was quietly elegant, indemnified by its solemn poignancy to the hazards of inexperience, shock, and ineloquence. Yet, as mourners filed slowly out of the church, each pausing briefly to acknowledge the gravity and incalculable weight of death, I could not divest myself of a separate sadness that had nothing to do with her passing, and everything to do with trying to say a few words about the dead.
With the slow healing of a massive wound there has emerged an ability to speak about it with greater candor, openness, and profundity.
There is a certain indisputable respect owed to those people who engage the enormous task of paying tribute to the lives of those whom they have lost. It is a respect owed to them because the monumental importance of their task looms with little but the prospect of failure. On the one hand, it is so easy to not say it right, to leave something out, to fail -- to ultimately succumb to the challenge of condensing the import, the magnitude of achievement, and the substance of a life into such a small space. But worse, perhaps, is the chance of success. Perhaps most terrible is the possibility of saying everything right and suggesting that that life was of a kind that could be abridged so easily. Even if we dismiss that inference, it is difficult to avoid the terrible implication of insignificance imparted to everything unmentioned at a funeral, to every moment lived by an individual that didn't survive the cutting floor of his or her eulogy.
I decided to write on remembering the remembrance of September 11 after its tenth anniversary had passed. I made that decision because I had no desire to critique any effort made to pay respects to the dead. There is a noble impulse in all tributes to the fallen of September 11 that must go undisturbed and must be beyond reproach; deference to that impulse must exist apart from criticisms regarding any one memorial's imperfections, or a mention of how easy it is to co-opt tragedy for the purposes of profit, if we are to preserve the integrity of remembrance in general.
But lost amid the flurry of retrospectives and features about 9/11 is the inclusion of one of the things that made that day so haunting: its silence. On that day there was an inexplicable terror in the disjoint between the tremendous roar of each tower coming down and the noiseless rise of the ensuing smoke; the way that sirens pierced the stillness; the sound of a landline going dead during a 9-1-1 call made just moments before collapse. The deafening quiet at the end of the towers' fall was perhaps no better represented by the empty chatter that news media was forced to generate in response. For days on end, broadcast commentary was juxtaposed with an endless loop of images and video clips of the towers' disintegration, often in the same frame. And without fail, words rarely seemed fit; pundits and journalists lost their place on air and silence lingered in newsrooms, as if the very sight of such inconceivable and instantaneous loss was itself an endless void that sucked the ability to speak down with it.
Artists, novelists, trauma theorists, and psychologists alike speculated that September 11 was an event that could not be spoken about and necessarily existed outside the functions of language. In that spirit, public gatherings across the country were punctuated by moments of silence, acknowledgments of the inadequacy of speech in a time of overwhelming grief and reverence for the expressiveness of life itself. To murmur, to even attempt to murmur, it seemed, was in many ways to offend and denigrate the tragic eloquence of steel meeting steel, bodies leaping from windows, and the composition of a mass grave out of the materials of a once triumphant financial center -- as if those things could possibly find a home in words.