Stones, stones, stones, you must bring stones.
—Hugh Blumenfeld, lyric from the album Big Red
It’s just an oblong pile of rocks. It’s also one of the most moving war memorials I’ve ever encountered. Situated in a small New Haven, Connecticut park and entitled “A Memory in Stone,” each geological chunk represents a month since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Every stone is hand lettered with the number of military and civilian deaths in a particular month, a mind bending merging of the natural and permanent with the human and ephemeral. Breathtaking in its simplicity, it’s hard not to be touched by the stones’ linkage of physical and emotional weight.
Connecticut has long been a leader in memorializing the nation’s wars. The 135 foot tall granite monument commemorating the 1781 Battle of Groton Heights where 800 British troops under Benedict Arnold defeated 165 Americans in a bloody massacre was the country’s first Revolutionary War obelisk. Finished in 1830, it was needling the sky before the more famous ones built at Bunker Hill, Massachusetts, Saratoga, New York, and Bennington, Vermont.
Dedicated in July1863, not long after the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, a brownstone shaft surrounded by a low cast iron fence in Kensington is reportedly the oldest Civil War monument in the nation. A relatively small marker situated on a triangle of grass beside the Congregational church, it seems rather humble to be first of its kind.
Unveiled on Veterans’ Day 1995, the National Iwo Jima Memorial along State Route 9 on the Newington-New Britain town line is a sculpture depicting the famous World War II flag raising on Mt. Suribachi. It’s the only monument of its type specifically dedicated to those killed in the battle and erected by survivors. Rocks gathered from Mt. Suribachi lie at the feet of the flag raisers and sand from the invasion beach is incorporated into the memorial’s concrete base.
“How many more stones will be piled here before these wars end?” asks a sign tacked to a tree by Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice, the organization of religious leaders and people of faith who sponsor “A Memory in Stone” with permission of New Haven’s Board of Parks Commissioners. The pile’s poignancy is amped by its location on the Broadway Triangle, a rather formal slice of green surrounded by an iron fence strung between stone posts at the confluence of several busy streets. Nearby is an elegant Civil War monument with a tall cylindrical shaft topped by a bronze sphere on which perches an eagle. The pedestal is guarded by two life-sized granite soldiers and surrounded by a high iron fence. The contrast between the monuments in style, execution, and accessibility could not be greater. Seeing the two at once is striking. Are they somehow emblematic of their times and the conflicts commemorated?
If “A Memory in Stone” is innovative, it is so in a kind of back-to-the-future way. Cairns, or stone piles, have been markers of place and time for millennia. In our region today, they are most likely encountered as hiking trail guideposts above tree line. But throughout history and before, they were used to commemorate political and cultural events, indicate the place where someone died or was buried, employed as part of religious ceremonies or designed for artistic purposes. There is something elemental and compelling about a cairn that has long captured human imagination. By myriad means they show us the way.
Ordinary rocks inscribed with a powerful message, this is a living, growing memorial completed only by the end of conflict. The elongated shape of the cairn is vaguely, but eerily reminiscent of a corpse—wider in the middle, tapered at head and foot. The writing is slowly fading away like a buried body. We are measuring death in stones. They are as cold and lifeless as the statistics we typically read. But infused with meaning, they help us measure and comprehend loss in a way mere numbers never can.