The poet Shelley was really on to something when he created one of his most famous sonnets,Ozymandias. An original draft of the work directed at the famous Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II is available. It is both a commentary on the ephemeral existence of potentates and the wishes of the lowly workers who served in his kingdom and hid their names in inaccessible areas of the pyramids they would construct.
Who doesn’t want to be remembered in some way? Who wants to pass through this life and then disappear from all memory? Obviously, no one and we have sufficient proof of this drive for immortality in ancient paintings on cave walls, scrolls squirreled away in mountainsides, plaques on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the bronze plaques on baseball fields, the many statues standing in parks all across the globe and now even the Internet. Once our photo and history is released to this potentially interstellar archive, we live forever no matter what the memorial on Earth may be.
Much of the wish for remembrance in prior ages centered around grave stones, exquisite mortuary structures or trendy niches in elaborate and expensive mausoleums in places like Forest Lawn in California. Others will spend eternity, such as it may be, in positions of prominence in national libraries or beneath altars in crypts for only the special.
Some will lose all semblance of remembrance in the desolate plots of Potters Field in New York City where a new park is planned. How will they not desecrate the grave sites with their anonymous numbers? Here lie the forgotten and unclaimed. They, too, lived lives that should be remembered, but seemingly no one cared enough.
Many years ago, a project was started to right a wrong of the latter type at psychiatric hospital grave yards. I worked at one of the hospitals which had been in existence since the time of Dorothea Dix. Across the street, in a hidden back area, were grave sites, unmarked and uncared for it seems for almost a century. The right to be remembered fired up a group that dedicated themselves to combing through mountains of moldy papers, stacks of crumbling records and newspaper articles — whatever they could get their hands on to prove these people existed and had died and deserved some remembrance.
I believe the care of psychiatric hospital long-forgotten cemeteriess is spreading and I also believe it pays tribute to people who lived and died in situations no one would want for a loved one. Someone had loved each and every one of these former patients and yet they were buried as nothing more than something to be discarded and forgotten.
What started me thinking about this topic today was a rather comical, if you choose that appellation, incident in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. Seems someone, or a group of someones, erected a bust of Edward Snowden, the NSA info leaker. City officials, naturally, hurriedly removed the offending artwork, but the deed was done. Snowden had his day in the sun in Brooklyn.
Snowden, however, has no problem with being remembered because his place in history has been assured by the ongoing investigations and machinations surrounding his leak of information, sensitive or otherwise. He even has an award-winning documentary (Citizenfour) detailing his efforts. Some may see him as a hero, others a traitor. Really depends on which side of the argument you stand; should we know what our government is doing or should we remain ignorant. Snowden opted on the side of freedom of information and saw it as a moral obligation on his part no matter the consequences to his freedom.
Strange how some see a person as a traitor and others as a patriot. Once, while visiting Niagara Falls in Canada, I went on a tour of the Falls led by a Canadian guide. We reached a certain point where he indicated an “American spy,” a woman, had been caught. The comment was quite startling to me as I saw her as a patriot in our American Revolution and here she was being called a spy. Really set me back a bit. I don’t recall her name and that is a true shame because she’s a woman who should be remembered. I also think the Canadian guide should, by this time, have revised his commentary to include that she was an American patriot in our fight for freedom from Great Britain.
A statue or a cell for Snowden? History will tell the true story and it may not be pretty but we will have to wait for it. Until then, we can consider the evidence for ourselves, such as it is, and hope that it helps us all be more secure in our democracy.