Jay D. Aronson’s Who Owns the Dead? tells the story of the recovery, identification, and memorialization of those killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The assault came at just the moment in history when large-scale DNA identification efforts were becoming possible, and innovations in biotechnology and forensic science led NYC’s Chief Medical Examiner to pledge the identification and return of all human remains discovered in the wreckage of Ground Zero. This massive and monumentally difficult task—the largest and most costly forensic investigation in history—was undertaken not just for the victims’ families, but also for a range of social, cultural, and political reasons that have contributed to fifteen years of contention and debate both within the community of families and between families and officials responsible for finding, identifying, and memorializing the dead.
In interweaving the forensic identification effort with the vexed planning for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Aronson demonstrates America’s struggle with the fraught composite of private and public grief that’s regularly visited upon other parts of the world. His book’s closing thoughts are below.
On the evening before the National September 11 Memorial and Museum formally opened to the public, donors and corporate supporters were fêted with a cocktail party to recognize their contributions to making the museum possible. For relatives who had labored tirelessly to ensure the creation of a museum that honored the memory of their loved ones, the party was a culmination of more than a decade of advocacy and planning. For relatives who opposed the museum plans and had worked so hard to bring victims’ remains above ground, the party was an outrage. The event added to their sense that the people who planned and financed the memorial and museum were more concerned about their own legacies than the feelings of those who lost family and friends on September 11. The dead, it seemed to some, belonged first and foremost to the powerful.
The insult of having victims’ remains stored in the basement of the museum, and the perception that those remains were being used to entice tourists to pay for entrance, was too much to bear. For Rosemary Cain, mother of firefighter George Cain, museum officials were “grave robbers” using the remains of World Trade Center victims for “greed and ego,” not to uplift the nation or provide solace to those in mourning. For Jim Riches, the presence of remains in the repository would keep him away. “I’ll never set foot in that museum,” he insisted, “until those remains are out of there and above grade on a plaza in a respectful place where it’s open to all the public to go for free.”
Thus, in the end, the situation appears to be stuck in a web of competing interests and viewpoints. One can imagine many different outcomes, but there is no simple solution to the storage of the remains of World Trade Center victims that will satisfy every one. Sites similar to the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum—Srebrenica, Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Hiroshima—did not have to weigh the need to memorialize against the need to redevelop and revitalize the surroundings in the stark terms that confronted the stakeholders at the World Trade Center site. While dissenting families offered alternative locations for the storage of remains, the city dismissed them as being impractical.
Ultimately, the dispute about the storage of remains points to the fact that the new scientific identification techniques being developed in the context of the September 11 attacks and other mass fatality events are a double-edged sword. They promise, at least in theory, to eliminate the possibility of identifiable remains being left unidentified. But the same advances in identification techniques mean that remains must be cared for and kept present, both physically and in the minds of surviving relatives and society at large, until they can be identified. In her letter to 9/11 families regarding the transfer of remains to the repository, acting chief medical examiner Barbara A. Sampson, who took over from Charles Hirsch when he retired at the end of 2014, reiterated the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME)’s commitment to “do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to identify all those who lost their lives.” Thus, the remains of the World Trade Center attacks can never fully be laid to rest and become part of “the past.”