In New Memorial, Have We Remembered Well Enough?

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North Memorial Pool at the World Trade Center site

New Yorkers are once again reflecting on the events of September 11th as the 9/11 Memorial Museum officially opens its doors.  

We are not a city that has set aside many quiet places for reflection, and sacred is not a word we generally connect to commercial real estate. Yet from the beginning, "sacred" was the term many used to describe the site. "What you have is a very strong sense that in this one place, and at this one time, thousands of people left the secular daily world and in an instant passed over to the spiritual realm," said anthropologist John Forrest when he first spoke with WNYC 6 months after the attacks. "That has to make that place enormously powerful as a sacred place. " 

Forrest said that the task of remembering this event was significant for more than historic reasons."There may be a fear that memorializing anguish and suffering and horror is somehow bad and I think we need to get over that, because those things are the ways in which we grow as a city, grow as a nation, grow as a culture." 

Now the fences have come down around the memorial fountains. The name of each person who died that day is inscribed in stone. And each and every visitor to the site will decide if we have remembered well enough.

There will be no sharper critics than the family members and colleagues of those who died that day. Some of them are protesting the way remains have been interred. Some have found fault with the gift shop and the $24 ticket price. Some are avoiding the museum all together.

But some have found solace there. On one afternoon last week, I sat with Nancy Yambem in her backyard north of the city. Her husband Jupiter Yambem worked at Windows on the World and she said she had braced herself as she descended into the underground museum for the first time. 

"It was difficult. As you went down the escalators, that feeling of pain was coming back. It was a dark space. It was almost like going back to the time when my husband died. As we walked around it was ever present, " she said.

Yambem said that everyone who visits the museum should spend time in the part of the museum where those who died are remembered. There are nearly 3,000 photos of victims displayed and audio of stories and anecdotes. That's the heart of the exhibit, said Yambem, because you can begin to understand in some small way what was lost that day. She spent time there with her son, now a senior in high school, and her husband of seven years.   

As she described her visit, the experience appeared to have been cathartic — the kind of feeling you hope for when you enter a sacred space. "Literally when I came up the escalator as I walked out the doors, I told myself this is my life now and it’s not that pain and it’s not that terrible sorrow that was downstairs, but I had grown. We went to my husband's name on the fountain and there was a real sense of peace in that."  She added, "There was such a sense of relief — a real sense of peace in that it’s OK, we're OK, we survived it all. And that felt good."