Yale is a lived-in mausoleum. The walls of Commons, or as we now know it, the Schwarzman Center, bear the inscribed names of countless fallen veterans from so many American wars. The Yale Glee Club sometimes sings of Yale as “rich in the toil of thousands living, proud of the deeds of thousands dead.” Grove Street Cemetery proclaims “THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED” — to which former Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley once quipped, “They certainly will be, if the University wants the land.” This prediction, I am pleased to see, remains unfulfilled with the erection of the new colleges.
We keep our Dead close here, their individual names chiseled into the architecture.
Yale introduces its incoming and living freshman to its Dead almost immediately, marching them by the statues of Nathan Hale and Theodore Dwight Woolsey, past the cenotaph on Beinecke Plaza and finally into Woolsey Hall for Freshman Convocation. Huddled in their residential colleges, the freshmen feel the weight of a tradition of pomp and circumstance, a baptism into a legacy as future Yale alumni. The living Dead of campus life is even part of our daily rituals, part of the Yale sweaters we wear and the Yale fight songs we sing. It’s the creation of a time-tapestry and a sense of joining a tradition.
Before I left to come here, my erudite-if-absent-minded father offered me a sort of blessing to mark this coming-of-age moment — the same sort of wish he has offered several bewildered teenagers before me. “I often wonder if it wouldn’t be better to view our entire life as a whole, in total. Wouldn’t we be able to better live our lives fully? But if we did see our lives as a whole, how would we keep each moment fresh?” he asked, “So here is my wish for you: That you can see your life as a total and at the same time experience every moment as fresh.” It’s a bit much, true, but his words hit on the same stuff of Yale’s mortal tradition: the blending of the past with the present.
A living awareness of mortality sharpens life. I am part of a tradition; we are part of a tradition. The constant reminders of people just like us, now Dead, serves to ponder battles of our lives with a reminder of their finitude. Death is meant to be a ballast for each undergraduate’s tenure here.
But who and what do we memorialize?
More than just the Dead, Yale is a place of veterans. Our wide-eyed freshmen don’t just pass a cenotaph and some statues. They march by a memorial to the Yale Veterans of WWI “who true to [Yale’s] Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not perish from the Earth.” Revolutionary War hero and Yale alumnus Nathan Hale, hanged by the British for his work in intelligence, welcomes them to Old Campus. Through its memorials, Yale tries to transfuse into each successive generation a legacy of moral struggle and moral right. We can quibble over the historiography of the wars, but Yale lauds its warriors who dared and died for freedom. These were people who, in times of moral uncertainty, fell on and fell for the side they believed to be right.
There are times in collective consciousness that matter more. We are living in one of those times. With the recent events on our campus, new people are suddenly tapping into a conversation that has been underway for decades and centuries. It’s a chunk of conversation that will fold itself into the fabric of Yale, and hopefully nudge its path closer to a better University. This is a time of living veterans, people whose sacrifices today will carry a legacy tomorrow.
Right now, we need to feel the matrix of University history stretching backwards for all its good and all its bad, just as we need to understand the matrix of University history stretching before us that we are working to create. We have our Dead to ground the business of living and refresh the reasons for sacrifice.
These days are ones that remind me why the names of our Dead dot the campus. They remind us of the urgency that has informed our history, must shape our present, and will mold our future.
We shall raise the Dead. In fact, we’re doing that already.
Amelia Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .