THE MEMORIAL THAT DIES: UNDERSTANDING THE MEMORIAL TREE’S CONVENTIONAL FAILURE AND PUBLIC POPULARITY IN 1918 AND TODAY
This senior thesis identifies a contradiction in a normalized practice in the United States. In the wake of 9/11, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans planted trees to commemorate the trauma, shouting ‘never forget!’ as they created tributes that would inevitably fade and die. The question remains, if the memorial tree does not and cannot preserve a memory in perpetuity, what is its purpose? This question explores the definition of memorialization, attempting to understand if and how the memorial tree might change what it means to memorialize trauma in the United States. Beginning with a singular site, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, this thesis identifies the primary tensions that arise in relation to the memorial tree, as well as its unique contributions. Major national newspapers and the publications of conservation organizations provide accounts of how the primary issues arising in the Garden were resolved by stewards and communities across the country, allowing this thesis to develop into a commentary on a memorial form rather than a treatise on a single site. Analyses of attempts to overcome or acknowledge the impermanence of the tree, its exploitation to advance another cause unrelated to the trauma, the high levels of community participation that it requires, and finally its mundane embodiment of a distinguished, even sacred symbol reconcile the tree’s apparent failures with its functions. This thesis argues that while the mortality of memorial trees fails the conventional, memory preservation purposes of memorials, the continued movement to plant trees in the wake of both World War I and 9/11 is an effort to integrate death into the life of a community. The memorial tree’s neglect or death contextualizes trauma in the ordinary life events that follow in its wake. Its ability to do serve more than one purpose makes memorialization a tool for solving ordinary problems. Community participation transforms memorialization into an activity and a way to serve the community, and finally the memorial that is distinguished by mundane images found in nature grounds emotional experiences in ordinary moments rather than special occasions and spaces.
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