Extinction Memorials

In  by December 8, 2023

I remember coming to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, in its place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., arriving early in the day, glimpsing it first through fog—maybe that’s not possible, given it was a high school class trip, but that’s my memory. The statues there, you could so clearly read the emotions forged in their features. Fear, awe, concern, anger, confusion. A fitting tribute, a place to remember and mourn the dead and the living who fought, and who all lost something in that conflict.

And then, not long after, coming to the Vietnam War Memorial, feeling its full effect. Thousands of names, a solid wall of loss. Americans should be burdened by the weight of all those names, the assembled company there, but grateful that its architect, I. M. Pei, gave us this gift. I watched my father seeking out the names of old friends, carved there into the rock. That’s part of my experience now too. I won’t forget.

That giant, polished earthwork, and the naked gash of earth that frames it, help us to remember. But more, they provide not just a prompt for grieving, but a safe place for mourning. Mourning is a moment of real vulnerability. People mourning are unguarded. They can be bereft, abject.

Mourning is the hard emotional work we all should do, we all must do. A memorial is not an inert piece of landscaping—it’s a psychically active site, a place where humans are transformed.

Now, take a walk with me, from the Vietnam Memorial, across the National Mall, into the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, down some stairs, and see, in modest, dusty vitrines, the bones of a dodo, the taxidermied corpse of a passenger pigeon. Next to them, some scholastic-sounding explanatory text. By chance, I came across these things on that same day, in just this order.

What a poor, ineffectual memorial we have unintentionally created for these extinct species. Even less, for the thousands of other species entirely gone from the face of the earth since humanity began its march across it—species for whom there are no memorials. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to see or touch. No place to leave a stone, a flower, a memento.

We should all be ashamed.

In truth, it was human action that brought these species to extinction. I think it’s late,  but essential, for us to create a place to memorialize those species made extinct, in whole or in part, by human hands.

We are all, to one extent or another, responsible. It’s well beyond the point of any debate. The evidence is clear, the verdict has come in, the jury is unanimous.

The humans. It was us. We’re the guilty ones. We did it.

And I think it’s crucial to note that some of us are more culpable than others. Capitalism and colonialism have been, and still are, delivering power and consequence into the hands of a few men—it’s always men—whose choices have been paramount in driving what will be called the Sixth Mass Extinction. The Anthropocene Extinction.

Back on the Mall, back at the monuments: I love the country I was born to, the people and ideas it is assembled from. And the purple mountain majesties, the fruited plain. And I concede that not all of its wars were just.

• • •

We can’t plumb now the depth of the loss, or the shattering trauma of carrying the responsibility of having participated in the murder of an untold richness of species, and not even having a place to process these things. Not even to know or feel the extent of what is gone. Our children will feel this too. Every generation’s burden becomes heavier.

Look into the faces of your kids and tell them that we have the pyramids for the pharaohs, memorials and special cemeteries for the war dead, but for the extinct species, nothing. A lacuna—a deliberate and obvious void. They see that.

Our kids are watching us. They are aware. They learn from us, not just from the self-exculpatory stories we contrive and the poses we strike, but from how we transform the world around us, and what we value enough to actually make an effort for.

I remember my paternal grandfather. Not in life, because my encounters with him in that state were, fortunately, few and brief. But my father and I flew home with his ashes, after he passed in his shabby houseboat in Florida. That place was, to my young eyes, a disturbing mess—I remember disorder and filth, golf clubs, a shotgun, bourbon, polaroids of nudes. But somehow, in death, his presence disturbed me more.

It wasn’t that the urn full of his ashes remained up in the shelf at the top of our coat closet for years—after all, they were just ashes, right? It was the sense of lack, that there was no real place for him, and for us to mourn, to accuse, or even just to remember him. The houseboat was swiftly sold. His mess auctioned off. No one ever showed up in that coat closet to eulogize him or recount his life.

So too the Moa. The Aurochs. The Black Rhino. Tell them, tell them, that they will remain forever unmemorialized, forever unmourned. That there’s no place to go to remember them, except, maybe, a few glass cases in a museum somewhere.

Kate Boyes Trapped in the R.A.W. book cover
This story sponsored by our Patron, Kate Boyes

This is wrong. This is insufficient.

My father and my brother finally did, one steamy June day, dig a hole in the family burial plot, and put Grandfather Rose’s ashes into the ground. There might have been a few words said then, the character of which I cannot report. I was several states away then. But I’m glad it finally happened.

If there’s a place for my grandfather, scoundrel that he was, and for the people his life touched, then surely there should be a place for these extinct species, innocent of everything but getting in the way of humanity, of wishing to share the same resources, the same bounty we together inherited.

In a time when so much ephemeral information is now so readily available to us, a memorial is a durable marker saying that these people or creatures or events are significant. Recognition that they are important to us. That we remember. This would not be, in any way, “environmental justice,” but it would be just.

It might also serve as a prompt to us to pursue better courses in our own time.

I’m not asking for much. No prominent location on the shining National Mall. No massive marble statues. It could be anywhere, though it would be good if it were somewhere quiet, natural, beautiful. It could be meadow, or forest. Probably, the less manicured and obviously premeditated, the better. And probably we should make sure it’s a big plot, the way things are going.

Let artists each choose a species, and make somber, humane memorials for those that are now unreachable to us. There is no risk of ever running out of choices.

Do we even know their names? Stellar’s sea cow. Labrador duck. Tasmanian wolf. St. Helena olive tree. Golden toad. Réunion giant tortoise. Great auk. Our ignorance is appalling.

We need—not they, but we need—a place to see and to remember them, a place to accept our participation, tacit or active.

A place to admit and feel our sorrow at what has happened, our trauma, our mounting loneliness as a species. A place to grieve what has been lost. A place to traverse our pain, and create from it a resolve never to let this happen again.

That’s what memorials are.

Copyright © 2023 Christopher Mark Rose

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Christopher Mark Rose

Christopher Mark Rose is a husband and father, an electrical engineer for NASA spacecraft, and in his spare time an author of speculative fictions. His writings have appeared in Interzone and Dreamforge, and are forthcoming in Asimov's and UNCANNY. He attended the most recent Viable Paradise writers' workshop, and is founder for the Charm City Spec reading series. He hopes his stories are affecting, humane, and concerned with large questions.

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