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Jewish World Review
Sept. 1, 2006
/ 1 Elul, 5766
Celebration of Sadness
We are currently in the throws of two significant anniversaries, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the five-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks. It seems to me that our society spends an awful lot of time on what I call the celebration of sadness. This is a relatively new phenomenon in our culture and one I admit I don't fully understand.
I should make it clear at the onset that I am a firm believer in keeping selective unpleasant memories alive. Rallying calls such as "Remember the Maine," "Remember the Alamo," and "Remember Pearl Harbor" were important not only for the patriotic unity it inspired at the time, but as an historical reminder of what enemies can do to us when we let out guard down. In that respect I would certainly support the idea of "Remember 9/11." Our nation must never forget that day. But why must we "Remember Katrina?"
Ever since natural disasters have been happening to humans (which is ever since there have been humans), the usual sequence of events has been: a) a period of grief, b) a period of rebuilding, and c) growth. The Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and any number of devastating brushfires in Southern California, to name just a few national disasters, all had the grief, rebuilding, and growth elements in common. But to my knowledge, yearly celebrations commemorating these tragedies never took place, as they seem to do for modern-day tragedies.
This notion of commemorating grief is more than a bit bizarre. Commemorating grief, celebrating sadness, wallowing in sorrow - whatever you choose to call it - is undoubtedly something that has sprung out of the "getting in touch with your feelings" mentality. It is that same thinking that has allowed for sorrow (once a very private thing) to be publicly (and proudly it seems) displayed. I don't think this represents a healthy cultural change.
There once was a time when we celebrated the BEGINNINGS of events, not the ends of them. We remembered the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other important Americans, not the day they died. All that changed with the Kennedy assassination. When I was in school everyone knew that George Washington was born on February 22nd - no one knew or cared when he died. I would argue that more people today remember the date that JFK was shot, not the day he was born.
When you remember the birthday of an important individual you are honoring his life, celebrating the "death day" of a person does the opposite. It is the good works, the accomplishments of the life of that heroic figure that should be celebrated, not the day he died. You MOURN a person at the time of his or her death, but you don't go on mourning year after year. When it is your own loved one that has died, you remember them and you honor them quietly on that day for years to come, but the outward mourning should not continue.
In the case of President Kennedy, his assassination is remembered, reviewed, and replayed year after year. We remember Kennedy not for what he did in office, but for how he was killed. The same goes for Princess Di. Elvis' birthday is commemorated, but so is his death-day. Elvis film festivals and other celebratory events are planned around both dates. Why an avid Presley fan would want to celebrate the day he died is beyond me. It's all part of the celebration of sadness.
Death commemoration is not just for the famous. I don't know if it goes on in other parts of the country as much, but in Los Angeles whenever a person is killed in an automobile accident, almost overnight you see bunches of flowers, stuffed toy animals, hand-made sympathy signs of poetry and scores of memorial candles showing up at the place on the street or near the corner where the person was killed. This is a new thing. Flowers and other items of commemoration used to be kept within the confines of the cemetery, now they are placed at the public place where the person's death actually occurred. Public sorrow is in.
And now we've graduated from the placing of candles, flowers, and teddy bears on street corners to erecting permanent memorials at the locations where major tragedies have occurred. I can certainly understand putting up discreetly placed commemorative markers and plaques for extraordinary events such as the 9/11 attack, but the massive spending of who knows how many hundreds of millions (or billion?) on mega-memorials is insane. Major memorials will be going up at the Pennsylvania crash site and the Pentagon as well as the Twin Tower location.
I'm sure there will be some sort of enormous memorial erected in New Orleans for the Katrina disaster. Will we construct memorials for every single hurricane, flood, fire, explosion, rainstorm and earthquake in the future? At that rate, eventually the whole world could be filled with nothing but elaborate memorials to tragedy.
I know it is important to remember and honor those who have died in tragic ways - we should, of course. The families of victims must, as always, mourn, remember and honor their loved ones in their own private way - anyway they wish to do so. But as a society, I just wish we would spend a bit less time wallowing in it all, it starts to feel like national self-pity when we do. What is more important than expensive mega-memorials, to my way of thinking, is to figure out how and why the disaster happened in the first place so that steps can be taken to prevent it from reoccurring.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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