Sunday, June 02, 2002

Citizens own Ground Zero

        Mom and I went to the cemetery to visit Dad. He wasn't there, of course. Still, we put a floral saddle over his tombstone and a flag next to it. Nearby was a family, a young man and woman with a child who was carefully watering the fresh flowers at what I was guessing was her grandmother's grave.

        My mother asked me again if I like the stone she had picked, and I told her again that I do. It is engraved with my father's name, the year he was born and the year he died.

        Most of us believe when we lose loved ones that they will go to a much better place, better even than the most pastoral, well-kept, grassy and classy cemetery. But their mortal remains matter to us.

Carved in stone

        Maybe we also like the symbol of granite and marble. It's not carved in stone, we say, when something is impermanent. So we engrave our names on these stones for generations of little girls with sprinkling cans. A permanent reminder.

        My family owns this little piece of earth. Sort of. It's a uniquely public, privately-owned piece of real estate. And I never mind sharing it with other mourners, even ones I don't know. The Rev. Andrea Ruehrwein Raynor said the reason might be that “the human spirit can bear even the unbearable if you know you're not alone.”

        She would know.

        The Cincinnati native, a hospice chaplain, has volunteered for the past eight months at the Ground Zero site in Lower Manhattan. She has been there to bless the remains of the victims of Sept. 11 as they were brought up from the pit.

        On Thursday, thousands gathered at the site where 2,823 people died, where rescue workers searched through 1,642,698 tons of debris. Work was completed in less time than officials had believed possible. This was despite the fact that workers paused as each of the 291 intact bodies was brought from the wreckage. Nearly 20,000 body parts were recovered.

        “They raked through this debris every day, sometimes with their bare hands, only to come up with nothing more than a bone fragment,” she said. “And every time, people around stopped, bowed their heads, took off their hats. Their reverence was very moving. We're a very physical people. Our bodies are the way we know each other — arms that held us, the shoulder we put our heads on.”

        New York Deputy Fire Commissioner Thomas Fitzpatrick told the New York Times in late September, “As people see this thing coming back, as awesome as the tragedy was, I think they will be assured about our strength.”

        A banner at the entrance of the ruins read, “We will never forget.” Let's carve that in stone.

        Although we Americans have managed to commercialize nearly everything else, our cemeteries still don't have juice bars, arcades or T-shirt emporiums. And when a New York state agency decides how to redevelop the WTC site, I hope they remember that an entire country will be watching to see that they honor this uniquely public real estate. The victims aren't there, of course. Still, it's a final resting place, somewhere we have mourned together.

        And this piece of ground belongs to us.

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