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Hallo again to all.


They're thick all round us this day, especially here, where this is being written, just an hour away from 'Ground Zero'. On this tenth year after 2001, newspapers, radio stations, and websites in the States are all thick with deep grief, complicated sadness, unbearable stories — and names. The atmosphere is heavy, grey, and choked with names.

All who die have a name, even if for some it is unrecoverable and unknown. The greatest honour a country can render is paid to those soldiers who died nameless and now lay in marmoreal tombs. It is a deeply human trait to build something to memorialise those who died in a war or to carve a monument that symbolises the entirety of a war. In the past, such monuments were often an iconic symbol to embody a conflict and make it abstract: think of the Cenotaph in London, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Products of highly literate ages — in the sense that the printed word was the predominant means to express ideas — those physical monuments of remembrance were essentially wordless; icons on a more-than-human scale.

In the late twentieth century, that changed. Maya Lin's groundbreaking monument to the American dead of the Vietnam War focussed laser-like on the men and women who died. Each name is engraved on a 75-metre-long wall. The names are the thing, not the monument itself, as starkly beautiful as it is. And that tradition has continued. The memorial at the site of the World Trade Centre is a serene tribute of naturalism, falling water and groves of trees, but it is the names engraved thickly on the borders defining the two squares of water that give the memorial meaning. The plain wall of stone panels erected in a field in western Pennsylvania is bereft of meaning apart from the names of those who died on that ill-fated flight. It is the same with the simple and striking monument unveiled in northern New Jersey yesterday, which looks across to Manhattan. The memorial is called 'Empty Sky' — and the names are the monument.

The 9/11 memorial names

Through the centuries, we've come to expect names in a churchyard: chiselled, cut, engraved (and now lasered) into headstones. If in a churchyard we were to encounter, say, an obelisk with some sort of amorphous figure on it in the midst of a smooth green sward, that nameless blankness would be unsettling. We visit a churchyard to remember him or her or them, not pray a sort of general prayer for all who have died and are buried in that place. By remembering him or her, we can better pray for all those who have died in that place — but we progress from the remembrance of our particular grandfather to the general group in the churchyard, not the other way round.

And now our societal monuments are becoming something like secular churchyards, where those who died in this battle or that catastrophe are recalled individually and yet remembered together, separate and inseparable. In a world where the visual dominates the word — where the picture and the photo and the video are the undisputed champions of attention-getting — it seems right and proper that we now immortalise names in the strongest and hardest materials known on earth. When pixels fail, Paleozoic limestone will survive.

'What is your name?' begins the oracular and sonorous old Anglican catechism, amusing children (and puzzling scholars) with the enigmatic reply, 'N. or M.'.* How much more important could one's name be than to have it asked in such a way in such a context?

Psalm 147 says that God 'telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names'. And our own Adam 'gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field' (Genesis 2:20). To know a name meant that one had power over the bearer of the name: Remember Rumpelstiltskin? Names are unique. Powerful. Immortal. There may be more than one Nicholas and more than one Marie on the earth, but that Nicholas is entirely unchangeable with that other Nicholas.

That the air was thick with names today here in the States was hard to bear, but perfectly right. The air on that dreadful day blew dust everywhere and much of it was dust of men and women. Dust  . . . an ancient tradition holds that a rose, if burnt to ashes, could (given the right person at the right time) be re-formed from those ashes. The deadest of dead things, a pile of dusty grey cinder, could slowly rise in a small cloud-like waft of smoke, idly shaping itself into the stem, thorns, and blossom of an ashy rose — and then becoming a real rose.

Perhaps within that massive cloud of dust, falling everywhere that day in Manhattan, in its grey swirls and dirty eddys were briefly shaped the names of beloved men and women of ninety different nations, reforming and changing and disappearing, but each, although dust, still known by name. With death, each was changed, but each is remembered.

Each is named.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

11 September 2011

*There are various theories about the meaning of 'N. or M.'. This is a good overview.

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