What does it mean to commemorate? The Webster online dictionary tells us that to commemorate is to “call to remembrance.” It is to mark an event, or a person, or a group by a ceremony or observance or monument of some kind. To commemorate is to prod a collective memory in some conspicuous way. Collective memory has been given its most modern definition by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in his book
The Social Frameworks of Memory
in 1925. In his book, Halbwachs proclaims that all memory, even personal memory, is a social process which is shaped by various groups in society such as family, religious, or geographical. His most influential essay on this subject was posthumously published in 1950 after Halbwachs’ death in a Nazi concentration camp. It was titled
Historical Memory and Collective Memory
. In this essay, Halbwachs insists on a distinction between history and collective memory. He believed that history aims for a universal, objective truth severed from the psychology of social groups, while “every collective memory requires the support of a group delimited in space and time.” So what does this mean? Halbwachs believed that our view of the past does not come primarily from professional historical scholarship, but from a much more complicated and interwoven set of relationships to mass media, tourist sites, family tradition, and the spaces of upbringing with all their regional, ethnic, and class diversity. These are just a few of the many factors that come into play. Whereas today, personal memory is now understood to be a highly selective, adaptive process of reconstructing the past, shaped by present needs and contexts, collective memory is a product of social groups and their ever evolving character and interests. This leads to the next question to be asked: How does someone commemorate? A person will usually commemorate someone or an event by creating some type of memorial. What is a memorial? My definition of a memorial is a representation, often physical, that celebrates the life and deeds of a person or calls to memory an important event. Every life touches another. When someone has done something to enhance the life of someone else, it creates a stirring of emotion that propels people to create something that signifies the difference that the person has made. Songs and poems are written. Statues and paintings are created. Since man has been able to express himself there have been memorials from the cave paintings in Lascaux, France to the September 11
memorial in New York City. Memorials often represent the life of someone and are created after they have died. However, memorials can be created and presented while someone is still alive. Great examples of this can be seen during the holidays of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day where cards and gifts are given to express love and appreciation for the work mom and dad have done. These holidays usually put people into a frenzy of trying to find the “right” or “perfect” gift, a gift that represents mom or dad. Parents often save these cards and gifts to allow them to reminisce and think back to happy times. The gift has become a personal memorial.