We have just witnessed the opening of the 9/11 memorial and museum at site of the destroyed World Trade Towers, an event that once more raises attention to how we Americans form our “collective memories.” (On collective memory, see hereherehere and here.) In a recent suggestive essay in the Journal of Social History, Stacy Otto argues that New Yorkers have mourned the 2001 tragedy as New Yorkers had mourned the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.

In the earlier disaster, with eerie similarities to 9/11, 146 garment workers, many of them women and children, died, often by jumping out of windows to escape the flames. Hundreds of people, unable to reach the victims trapped on the high floors, watched helplessly.

Public mourning of the two events nearly a century apart, Otto argues, was in sharp contrast to the “modern” styles of grieving—or avoiding grieving—that had evolved in the years in between the two tragedies.

Where to Look

The key distinctions Otto makes is the extent to which American culture encourages or discourages survivors to dwell on death and dying itself. In the Victorian era, mourners obsessed about the ending. Was the deceased’s a “good death,” in which he or she imparted uplifting words to family clustered around the death bed? Or did the loved one die away from family and without parting words—as did so many of the Civil War dead, making their kin’s anguish even greater (see here). Mourners in the 19th century collected “relics” of the deceased, such as buttons and hair clippings, dressed in mourning clothes for a long time, and emphasized the sadness of the death itself. “Victorians were willing to re-live their pain; their objects of mourning memorialize not the one-lost’s life, but his or her death.” This style fit an an era of deep and often melancholy sentimentality, much of it revolving around the cemetery. (See here). Mourners and protestors of the 1911 Triangle fire acted in that spirit. In a symbolic funeral, they paraded through the streets of New York to large crowds, many of the watchers dressed in black. They focused on the awfulness of the deaths.

Modern, psychologically-counseled approaches to death instead turned the American mourner in another direction, away from looking at the death to looking at the life of the deceased. “We gather to celebrate the life of . . .” is the sort of language increasingly heard at the modern funeral. (Indeed, the phrase, celebrate the life, almost never appeared in American literature in 1911; nowadays, it appears at least half as often as the long-common phrase, “mourn the death” – calculation based on my nGram analysis.) Modern mourners are urged to get on with living, Otto states, to recover from grieving quickly, and to not obsess, lest they be diagnosed with depression or “Complicated Grief Disorder.” This new set of “emotion rules” is consistent with a more tempered, more upbeat 20th-century American culture (see, e.g., herehere.)

The way New Yorkers responded to the 9/11 tragedy, argues Otto, harkened back to the earlier Victorian-era styles. People found, preserved, identified, and commemorated small traces of bodies, most of which had turned to dust, even the ash itself. Passersby collected relics that fell from the sky, such as photographs, pieces of clothing, and other tokens. The spontaneous memorials posted around the twin tower site at the time and the official memorials now are almost all about the loss itself. (I recall, as counterpoint, a series The New York Times ran in 2001-02 on the lives of those who died, a modern effort to celebrate and not just to mourn.) The new 9/11 memorial is, writes Otto,

the community’s Victorian-era-like willingness to remind itself of the pain their loss inspires – and the outrage – distinctly antiquated ideas given modern culture’s insistence that everyone get over mourning and get on with their lives . . . [a] rejection—if only for the moment—of the isolation and private grief inherent in the post-Freudian, Modern notion of loss . . .

(I would add that the tension here between documenting the dying of victims versus documenting their lives before they became victims appears also in Holocaust memorialization. Also, the mourning of 9/11 victims may have developed in a special way because it entailed more than commemorating death; it also entailed dedication to extracting just retribution.)

Otto speculates that 9/11 mourning might have stirred a cultural return among Americans toward more expressive surrendering to grief. I doubt that, but it is an idea worth dwelling upon.