Saturday, March 29, 2008


The recent flurry of interest in the Vietnam Memorial reminded me of this list-serve post I wrote in 2003 about sacred spaces (places created to help us remember deceased loved ones or deceased historic figures):

Re: Sacred Spaces-- I find the subject of sacred spaces to be fascinating. I view sacred spaces as doors between the worlds: the world of the living (the present) and the world of the dead (the past). A previous list respondent quoted Santayana on religion as "another world to live in," a quote I really like, although I think for most people, sacred spaces are "another world to visit," not live in.

There appear to be two main kinds of sacred spaces: the religious sacred space, and the secular sacred space (I will confine my comments to secular sacred spaces). Each of these types of sacred space can be divided into two sub-groups: the symbolic sacred space, and the geographic sacred space. A symbolic sacred space is one not built on the site where an important event happened. It has conferred significance only initially, simply because its builders have declared that it has some connection to an important individual or event. It continues to be noted as a sacred space only if many persons visiting the site come to believe it to be one. A geographic sacred space, by contrast, has inherent significance because an important historical event occurred on that spot.

A few examples may help illustrate what I mean:

1. Vietnam Memorial: A secular sacred space (sub-group symbolic).
2. Ford's Theatre: A secular sacred space (sub-group geographic).
3. The Lincoln Memorial: A secular sacred space (sub-group symbolic).
4. Gettysburg National Battlefield Park: A secular sacred space (sub-group geographic).

In order to be considered a "true" secular sacred space, a site appears to need to be the scene of one or more tragic, unnatural deaths (or must commemorate such deaths). The act of dying before one's time seems to "open a door" between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This act of dying appears to "hallow" the ground, in a way that no other human action apparently can. One need only think about the "spontaneous shrines" that spring up at sites of tragedies to realize that this is true-- people will erect their own shrines on such sites if the government doesn't beat them to the punch!

It appears to me to generally hold true that an unnatural death that occurs in connection with a "lost cause," or "light that failed," or even for little discernible reason, infers a greater degree of "sacredness" to a space than does the sacrifice of lives in a cause that succeeds. I think that is a big part of the reason why Southern Civil War memorials are such magnets for domestic and foreign visitors-- I think the South in its entirety is viewed by many persons (in most cases unconsciously) as a secular sacred space. There are some notable seeming exceptions to this observation, such as the Vietnam Memorial, which I think is inarguably a secular sacred space in spite of the fact that no one died an unnatural death on the site (although the site is of course a memorial for thousands of Americans who did die unnatural deaths in what many view as a "lost cause"). I hope these comments help someone organize his or her thoughts. They've certainly helped me organize mine. I do apologize for not "keeping it short."

Tom Pearson

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