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How to Memorialize

A Surprisingly Complex Question Yields Debate

How to memorialize is a question that often comes up after an event involving the loss of a life (or lives), and it can be a surprisingly debatable question. Here is a summary of the intriguingly important debate that has arisen among urban planners, architects, historians, academics from a variety of other fields, politicians, and even average citizens since the end of World War II.

Traditional memorials are those whose purpose is purely to memorialize.In general, the controversy is over whether the best way to memorialize events and people is with traditional memorial structures or “living” memorial buildings. Traditional memorials are those whose purpose is purely to memorialize. Living memorials, meanwhile, serve some useful function – such as a post office, arena, school or even a highway -- while also including elements that memorialize.

It is because of this debate that large-scale traditional  such as Mount Rushmore, the Jefferson Monument, and the Lincoln Monument are mostly artifacts of days gone by. Giant public art works that memorialize great leaders and events since the 1920’s are much less common than they were until that time. Rather, today’s great memorials tend to serve a practical purpose that often overshadows the memorial. The Hoover Dam is but one example. That great project was more than 15 years in the planning and construction, resulted in a number of construction worker deaths, and required the labor of more than 5,000 men and women. The effort, to put it briefly, was on the scale with most of the other traditional monuments of history, such as the Great Pyramids, or even the Washington Monument. Yet, in this case, the Hoover Dam does much more than simply honor the memory of its namesake, Statesman – and 31st President -- Herbert Hoover (who lead the federal committee that planned and built the dam). In short, it also provides water, electricity, and flood control to millions of Americans who live near its Lake Mead and elsewhere along the mighty Colorado River.

Memorials today can range from artistic and modern to traditional and reservedBut critics of this “living” type of memorial will of course point out that today, more than 70 years since its completion, many who depend upon the Hoover Dam for their daily needs know little more about the life of Hoover except that he is the “guy they named the dam after.” A true monument to the life of Hoover would, the traditionalists say do more to, well, memorialize the man’s entire life. It might take into account his frustrations with trying to streamline government, at the request of future presidents, after his presidency. It might commemorate the fundraising work he did on behalf of his favorite charity, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. It might take into account the Great Depression, which led to his defeat for a second term as president. It might note his life-long distrust of Marxist ideas. But none of that is made immortal in a major national work of art.

Instead, the critics will note, future generations could very well be forgiven for the mistake of assuming that the Hoover Dam is intended to memorialize the famous FBI leader J.Edgar Hoover, arguably a much more colorful historical figure than President Hoover.

Scholars will continue to argue over whether traditional or living memorials are best; it is interesting to notice that a couple of new memorial trends appear to be emerging as the 21st century gets underway.

First, was the tradition of Presidential Libraries continues to take foot in America, it seems that traditional memorials are taking shape as living memorials as well by somehow taking on the practical component of academia or scholarship. And, secondly, building construction projects that were once prime targets for living memorials – namely stadiums, and other similar public buildings – are now being named in honor of large corporations that buy the “naming rights.” Therefore it seems that the days of “Veterans Memorial Stadiums” and “Soldiers Fields” have quietly taken their backseat in the history of how to memorialize.

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