What’s in a Name?

Cover of The New York Times, 24th May, 2020

I was in Cambridge on 11th September, 2001, but I went home to New York City for the Christmas holiday that year. My memory of that holiday is dominated two experiences: first seeing the city skyline without the domination of the Twin Towers as the cab drove me from JFK to Manhattan, and sitting for days at a time on the sofa in my father’s tiny apartment on 79th and Broadway reading the obituaries of those who died in the New York Times. Every day the paper included several pages of these, brief biographies, some accompanied by photographs, of the cross-section of New Yorkers and Americans who had lost their lives so inexplicably and suddenly. I found my old babysitter and a girl I had studied history of art there; I was introduced to firemen and cleaners, bankers and parents, real people with real lives cut brutally short.

On Sunday, the New York Times again placed a list of the dead at the heart of its publication, this time a list of those who lost their lives to Covid-19 as the number of pandemic fatalities in the US neared 100,000, over 30 times the number who died on 9/11. This time there was no space for pictures, even the short life stories of the 9/11 obituaries. Instead the front page lists names, ages, place of residence and, for most, a brief phrase describing something which made that person unique. These descriptions range from the banal through the humorous to the startling. They capture working lives, domesticities, private passions. They help to illustrate the claim of the sub-heading that these ‘were not simply names on a list. They were us.’

In all, the front page, and the continuation on page 12, lists 1,000 names, 1% of the marked death toll. It is, for me, as for so many others, profoundly moving in its personalisation of the loss that this pandemic is causing, not just in the US but across the world. But does it, as my cousin, who specialises in the visualisation of enormous numbers, asked, really convey the scale of this loss? Remembering these people as individuals is important, he implied, but in doing we lose a sense of the enormity of what 100,000 deaths really looks like.

The tension that my cousin is flagging here is one that has shaped commemorative practice for over a century, at least in the Anglophone world. While epidemic and pandemic illness have shaped society through extensive and profound loss of life for centuries, the First World War (and the ‘flu pandemic which followed it) brought this tension into focus as concentrated mass death occurred for the first time in a world of the nation state and global communication. Each death in and of itself was a personal tragedy and a loss to a community, but it was also, in the case of the deaths in war service, a death in the service of the state and thus required a more public marking. In Britain, this came in the form of casualty lists, published initially daily in the press, and later, as the numbers grew, weekly. Visually, these lists bear a startling resemblance to the New York Times cover, although they include none of the personalising details, only name, rank and unit of service.

It was after the war, however, that the process of naming the dead as a way of remembering them as individuals rather than as part of a mass truly came into its own in Britain. The decision not to repatriate the dead meant that traditional forms of naming on gravestones were precluded for all who died overseas. The loss of bodies meant that, for many, even a corner of a foreign field was an impossibility. Instead the names themselves became the markers and the memorials, both at home and overseas. It is impossible to travel around Britain without encountering a memorial listing the names of the dead – churches and churchyards, in schools and universities, on railway station concourses and street corners. The pattern is repeated in memorials overseas, most notably Lutyen’s monumental arches at Thiepval, with their overwhelming list of the 73,000 names of the missing of the Somme.

Panel of names, Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

And yet Thiepval remains one of the most profoundly moving memorials to British war losses, inspiration for at least two generations of historians and cultural critics. The invocation of names, with their assertion of an individuality, and individual loss, mirrored in the gravestones of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries across the world, aids our perception of the scale of loss, rather than distracting from it. Smaller local war memorials can have a similar effect, particularly once one is aware of their prevalence. The relentlessness of encounter wherever one travels in Britain serves to bring home the sheer number of dead as profoundly as any weekly gazette of casualties or daily listing of obituaries. The dead are many, but they are not numbers. They are names – of soldiers, students, workers, congregation members, parents, children, siblings. This, then, is the power that the mass listing of names has in commemorative practice, to bridge the gap between the unknown individual and the incomprehensible scale of loss. Names make not just the dead but the meaning of their deaths as one of many known to us. They never were just names on a list, then or now. They were, they are us.

Blackshaw Head War Memorial

Thiepval seems, one way, to illustrate the problem of naming as a way of commemorating the enormity of mass death through naming. The scale of the memorial is such that it is impossible to see some of the names in its highest reaches from the ground. The names of the dead on my local village war memorial may mean little to me as an incomer of three years’ standing, but I can still read each and acknowledge them as individuals in a way that the sheer scale of Thiepval precludes. Unlike Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which most notably took on the tradition of naming as commemorative practice in the US, those visiting Thiepval cannot touch the names, as those visiting Washington often do. Sensory connection, whether of eye or fingertip, seem to be denied. The visitor to Thiepval risks being overwhelmed by the size, the number, the enormity of so many names who cannot be comprehended as individuals.

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