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Why commemorate death?

Those who have visited these places know the feeling.

The names alone - Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Lockerbie, ground zero - trigger that hushed solemnity, that horror, which is seared into national or even international consciousness. And we peer momentarily into a dark pit that seems to have no bottom. But as monuments to these events rise up, so does a question: Do we learn enough from remembering death to justify memorializing it?

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It seems an appropriate time to examine the issue here in the United States. Any day now New York is expected to unveil the winning design for its Sept. 11 memorial. And on Saturday the nation will quietly observe the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination.

Americans seem to be leading the charge toward quick memorialization. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, commemorations of fatal incidents have multiplied. The trend worries some experts, as correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald points out (see story). In South Africa, a visible remembrance of apartheid, a museum, stirs up raw emotion (see story). Sometimes, societies need more time to heal before they can look at their past - as Dallas did after JFK's assassination (see story).

We may never understand how best to commemorate tragedy, or even why we should. But perhaps the search for answers helps shed light on darkness.