How To Memorialize A Massacre

CREDIT: Jonas Dahlberg
CREDIT: Jonas Dahlberg

Tuesday is the third anniversary of the day Anders Breivik ignited a car bomb in downtown Oslo, then slaughtered 69 people, many of them children, at a summer camp on the island of Utøya. To commemorate the 2011 attacks in Norway, the country is building what basically everyone agrees is an incredibly moving tribute memorial on Utøya, designed by Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg. It won’t be so much ‘built’ as removed: a piece of earth literally cut away to signify the absence that those deaths impressed on the country:

As Dahlberg recounted in his project description of his visit to the site, “Although we stood directly on the very place where many people had lost their lives, nature had already begun to obscure all traces…. With more time and with the upcoming building renovations and removals, both on Utøya and in Oslo, the disturbing sensations that were felt inside the buildings will also shift and eventually fade in varying degrees. Just as an open wound is stitched closed and eventually turns into a faded scar.”

“My concept for the Memorial Sørbråten proposes a wound or a cut within nature itself. It reproduces the physical experience of taking away, reflecting the abrupt and permanent loss of those who died,” he explains. “This void in the landscape makes it impossible to reach the end of the headland.”

Here at home, Sunday marked another tragedy: two years since the horrific shooting at the midnight showing of Batman Rises in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 were killed, 70 injured. The shooting in Aurora broke records for having the largest number of victims of any mass shooting in U.S. history, but residents of the town don’t yet have a plaque to demarcate the spot. The theater has been remodeled, with no sign of its history.


The town’s mayor says a memorial is coming in due time. (“This is something that we really want to be sensitive to their needs and their concerns,” he told the Denver Post. “We’re just not going to move any faster than we need to.”) But some families feel like things should be moving faster. “To not be able to move forward on a memorial garden or something for our families is not OK,” one woman whose daughter was killed in the shooting said in the same Post story. “I’m hoping, I’m truly hoping, in the future that this will come to fruition,” another relative added. “And I’m hoping it’s something that comes to fruition sooner rather than later.”

Why do we build memorials to our dead? What does their design say about us? And when we don’t have a memorial in place — or when an event becomes too common to memorialize — are we betraying something about our culture?

Professor Phoebe S.K. Young, who teaches and writes about cultural history at the Center for the American West, says that the process of building memorials has as much to do with those left behind coping with tragedy as it does commemorating the victims.

“It’s the process of memorialization as much as the finished product that is working out the meaning,” she told me by phone. And when it comes to the kinds of memorials that we’re now being forced to build — ones for civilians slayed by their fellow civilians — we’re still learning the ropes.

“Particularly in the U.S., my sense is that there’s an attempt to make a memorial that’s outside the political debate around gun control. But that it’s impossible, in a way, to try to do that,” Young says. “There might not be an explicit connection in terms of a stance, a voice, in the memorial itself. But the memorialization of victims of the violence, it’s so intense. How do you memorialize them? It’s different than saying they were martyrs or soldiers for a cause. They didn’t die in sacrifice for the nation’s freedom. But their lives were taken. And to try to find meaning in that outside of the debate over gun control is complicated.”


That’s something that those whose lives were affected by the Sandy Hook Massacre have to navigate. Their memorial fund asserts, somewhat aggressively, “It’s about people. Not politics.” But so much of the Newtown shooting is inherently political: the gun laws that allowed it to occur, the push for stronger legislation in its aftermath.

Young also pointed out that memorials often don’t properly estimate their lasting impact, and the things that have meaning today might not signify as much in the future. Specifically, she says, the trend of naming victims at memorials is something of a coping mechanism rather than a lasting memoralization.

“What makes sense for the generation right now, in the short to medium term, they try to make it a permanent memorial. This sense of permanence seems to really grip people. But in fact, memorials, once they’ve been there for a long time, can be very easily overlooked,” she explained. As we begin to learn how to cope with the mass shooting tragedies in the U.S. — not just Aurora’s, but also Newtown’s, and Isla Vista’s, and Tucson’s — this seems to be one of the deepest-seated fears we have to confront.

It’s a fear that stems from what happens when we do absolutely nothing: Will we just forget? If we don’t mark a tragedy, does that mean we don’t remember it? There are so many shootings in the United States that go unmemorialized — the 10,000 kids killed or injured by guns each year. Could we build a memorial to each and every one, and then remember? Even memorials get forgotten.

Young mentioned one memorial from the early 19th century. It was “about memorializing these men who were key to the community and died in a tragic accident. “Now, it’s sort of a barely noticed memorial. People sit on it, have their lunch. The names have ceased to have that power.”