Requiem for the Undiscovered Dead

a Wake for Those Lost in the World Trade Center Collapse, 9-11-2001

Brenda F. Bell

October 24, 2001

I step out from the subway stair;
Respectfully, I sniff the air.
All speak to wounds that must not heal --

For of the thousands in the list
Of people lost, their presence missed,
Are many who will not be found
To lay in fam'lies' burial ground.
The twinnèd tow'rs that fell, afire,
Became in death their fun'ral pyre,
Their mausoleum, their cemetery...
There's nothing left of them to bury --

Just ashes,
        blown upon the breeze

(that only seems to make us wheeze).

What requiem is this, for they
Who died upon that fateful day
And left this Earth without a trace
Or shred their children could embrace?

Grey ashes
        in the mouth
                and lung

A dirge that rests unsaid, unsung
While men in blue are lauded high
For those who fell out of the sky
And those who search for their remains.

Who, then, the common soul acclaims?

At least one voice,
        one soul who must
Be burden'd with that sacred trust
Shall, with each breath of acrid air
        or think
            the solemn prayer
That gives them peace.
        A song, a psalm
Of mem'ry. I must answer then,
"We'll not forget." Say ye, Amen.

I was working on John Street in lower Manhattan around the period of September 11, 2001, though I was not in the office that fateful day. The Monday following, when we were cleared to return to work, I noticed a strange, gray ash coating the canopies of the stores in the area, broken storefront windows with that same gray ash coating the merchandise, and the smell of Death and Destruction everywhere. In Judaism, we are taught that when we encounter the dead by the roadside, we are obliged to bury them before sunset and to inform their next of kin -- but too many of the WTC victims were incinerated, cremated alive, their only burial grounds deep within the lungs of those of us who lived or worked near Ground Zero. I found myself in the spiritual quandry of how to discharge that obligation of burial and notification without names or contact information, or even whole bodies -- only the knowledge that I carried some part of many of them within me, and that those ashes are what medical professionals call "body burden" -- that is, wastes that the human body cannot expel through its normal self-cleansing processes.

I was also annoyed and angry that the news media at that time appeared to focus primarily on the fire, police, and rescue workers who died in the line of duty that day while ignoring the thousands of civilians -- tens of thousands, we'd thought at the time -- who, never having chosen to risk their lives for the lives of others, perished in the attacks nonetheless. While we know the names of all of the "men in blue" who gave the Ultimate Sacrifice, we shall never never know the names of all of the civilians they tried to save, but couldn't.

In the end, my release came in discussion and in poetry. This Requiem took about six weeks to find its final form, being released on 10/24/01, just in time for Samhain/All Saints/All Souls -- a time at which the veil between this Life and the next is said to thin, and we might meet up with those who have passed on before. While it took me several months of more dark poetry to come out of the depression we all went through, this poem was the key. --BFB