The ‘infinite weirdness’ of the 9/11 Museum

Following up on yesterday’s item about the tackiness of a gift shop at the new 9/11 Museum in New York:

Steve Kandell of BuzzFeed lost his sister in the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings and decided to check out the museum. In particular, he gives a different sort of voice to the issue of the museum also being a cemetery.

The remains of those unidentified in the rubble are housed in an off-limits-to-the-public section of the museum, although Kandell asserts that people are already lying about dead relatives in order to get in to see it.

To get past the door, one must register for an appointment. I have not done this, but I present a case number, which means the official from the medical examiner’s office can indeed let me through — just a few days into this museum’s existence, and a few days before it’s even officially open, and already people have apparently tried lying about dead relatives to get in here.

The official’s name is Ben, and he walks with me into a small waiting room with a couple of chairs and a large photo of a candlelight vigil, probably from Union Square. Ben tells me softly that no one from the museum is allowed past this part of the room, and even then, only for cleaning. My family is welcome whenever the museum is open.

He points me around the corner to a cramped, dark space but does not follow. A box of tissues sits on a wooden bench and a family huddles silently looking through a window, about 4 feet by 5 feet. They leave almost instantly and I can now see what is through the window: aisles of dark-stained wood cabinets of rosewood or teak maybe, floor to ceiling, lit by small overhead spotlights. I let out a loud, sharp laugh.

Inside these cabinets are the remains that, after nearly 13 years of the most rigorous testing known to man, have not been matched to the DNA of any of the victims. Just drawers and drawers full of…stuff.

I wouldn’t really want to think too hard about what exactly that stuff is, but given that it’s a picture window looking out at cabinetry, there isn’t really anything else to think about.

This chamber is meant to be a sanctuary, but I cannot ruminate about the arbitrary cruelty of the universe or lament the vagaries of loss and love because all there is to see are armoires packed with carefully labeled bags of flesh too ruined and desiccated even for science. My sister is among the many for whom there have been no remains recovered whatsoever. Vaporized. So there’s no grave to visit, there never will be. Just this theatrically lit Ikea warehouse behind a panel of glass.

I remember being at the armory on the east side with my parents, maybe three days after — I was on the very first flight allowed out of San Francisco, a small army of friends mobilized to take care of my dog for however long I’d be gone — to hand over an old hairbrush of my sister’s for DNA matching.

A nun had my mom swab the inside of her mouth with a Q-tip to help with identification, although the nun said, kindly but nervously, that everything would be fine and none of this would be necessary. My mother comforted the nun and said it was pretty clear that everything wasn’t going to be fine, but she appreciated the sentiment.

The presence of the tomb has been a point of contention among families more vocal than ours who want more from a final resting place than the basement of this museum of unnatural history.

I don’t know how to feel about the matter because to do so would require any of this making even a bit of sense. It’s dumb, sure, but what could possibly be less dumb? Where is the right place to store pounds of unidentifiable human tissue so that future generations can pay their respects?

I would not wish what’s happened to my family on anyone, but I begrudgingly admire its infinite weirdness, still, after all this time. A hushed flute rendition of “Amazing Grace” wafts reverently over the escalators as I head back up to sunlight.

  • boB from WA

    “Where is the right place to store pounds of unidentifiable human tissue so that future generations can pay their respects?”

    Good question. Even as we fill up land space with markers of these who have gone before us, I wonder ponder this question as well. In a 100 years what will be the legacy of this place be? Will people still want to come (and not just families) or will they too, like most of our current generation who have forgotten those who died 100 years ago, forget about those who died at this particular place and time?