How to remember those with no tombstones

How to remember those with no tombstones
A man rides his motorbike at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk, on August 2, 2014.

There is a round black plaque cradled by white granite that is dedicated to Flight MH653.

It is located at Kampung Ladang Tanjung Kupang, Johor. It bears the Malaysia Airlines logo with the inscription: Kenangan kepada rakan-rakan kita (In memory of our colleagues) and seven names: Azian Borhanuddin, G.K. Ganjoor, Kamarulzaman Jalil, Karim Tahir, Onn Jaafar, Sharifah Sidah Syed Omar and Sim Siang Yong.

These are the seven crew members of the first fatal air crash of the national carrier on Dec 4, 1977. They perished along with 93 passengers whose names we don't remember.

Such is life. We mourn, we move on, we forget.

And that is why memorials are important. In its simplest definition, a memorial is "something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, etc." (

Yes, it is still early days where MH17 is concerned and MH370 remains as big a mystery as the day the jetliner disappeared. But no nation or airline has ever been struck by two major aviation tragedies within six months.

It's truly unprecedented - to use a very overworked and overwrought word - and that's why we, as a nation, need to mourn, heal and remember.

In a way, the government has already started the ball rolling when Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Jamil Khir Baharom said on Thursday that a special gravesite for Muslim victims would be provided in Presint 20, Putrajaya.

The victims' families would have a choice whether to have the bodies buried in Putrajaya or in their respective hometowns.

That indeed is a kind and thoughtful gesture. But it should not stop at that. In recent decades, memorials have been springing up around the world to commemorate victims of death and disaster.

Historians call it the Age of Commemoration brought about by "the acceleration of history", where continuity and permanence are no longer a feature of the modern world but rapid change is. And that means it becomes harder and harder to remember things, events, even people.

We all know that. Fads, trends, gadgets and events come and go at an unbelievable speed. That's why we are quick to build shrines both physical and virtual, in the face of any disaster, but we also forget easily. Even with MH370. The intense international interest and scrutiny started to fade after a few months.

Permanent, meaningful memorials therefore, as Julian Bonder writes in On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials, "help us consider trauma and rethink and reactualise the past".

Some may argue that a memorial to MH17 should be in eastern Ukraine where the plane was shot down, or that it's meaningless to have one for MH370 since it disappeared over the South Indian Ocean.

But that is precisely why we need a memorial for victims of both flights because as Bonder explains, it can function as a mourning site and especially so, in our context, "when tombstones are absent".

Having a memorial gives us a chance to memorialise all who perished, whatever nationality, whatever religion. For this, we can look to examples like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Berlin Wall Memorial for inspiration.

What makes both so moving and indeed memorable was the effort to put the names (and faces in the case of the Berlin Wall Memorial) of those who died.

Anyone who has visited these memorials can feel the power of remembrance even if you did not know any of the deceased. That was what Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs wanted when he started the campaign to build that memorial because he wanted the names of all those killed in that war remembered.

This was in stark contrast to previous war memorials which were symbolic and nameless like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And that, according to historian John Gillis, was the start of the "growing acknowledgement that everyone now deserves equal recognition at all times in wholly accessible places".

If we do decide on a memorial - and I sincerely hope we do - we must focus on its purpose: a "sacred space for mourning and reflection", as Lisa M. Moore writes in her article "(Re)covering the Past, Remembering Trauma: the Politics of Commemoration at Sites of Atrocity".

She adds that a memorial can also be a public site for education and awareness.

In fact, we would do well to wait to find the right place and design for such a memorial. There is no need to rush to put something up just because emotions are very high still.

That's because it is just as important to design something that is worthy, powerful and poignant and not throw up an ill-conceived and above all, politicised, embarrassment. If we believe this is important, then let's do it right, for the right reasons.

In the meantime, I think we owe it to the families of those on board MH370 to have closure. It's no point to continue waiting for concrete evidence that the plane had gone down.

So what the government should do - and do soon - is organise a multi-faith ceremony for families and friends to say goodbye properly, respectfully and lovingly to the victims of MH370 and MH17. And we should do it together.


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