The Camp Fire Pet and Wildlife Memorial. ©Ronald Schumann, 2022.

By Ronald Schumann and Elyse Zavar

The term disaster memorial might conjure images of stone walls inscribed with epitaphs, but commemorations—a term we prefer to better illustrate the creativity and healing potential of post-disaster memory work—are so much more than that. Commemorations take diverse forms that can range from tangible artifacts to ephemeral performances to digitally mediated remembrances.

Regardless of form, though, commemorations serve three primary purposes—they shepherd survivors through grief, thereby promoting psychological recovery; they communicate the hazards of a particular setting to unaffected populations, including future generations; and they help create community among those connected to an event or place of tragedy.

Given these noble-minded aims, commemorations are often seen as a universal good, however, a just and holistic remembrance is not guaranteed. Thoughtfully designed commemorations have the potential to heal, inform, and connect community members. Poorly conceived commemorations can—inadvertently or purposefully—harm, misinform, or fracture communities. Commemorations that successfully integrate a range of perspectives are the ones that have the greatest healing potential—not only to help recover from the current disaster but to reunite historically fractured communities in the face of future extremes.

As geographers, we’ve studied commemorations after environmental and technological disasters across the United States and explored the politics of memory at heritage sites irrespective of disaster type. The following are two examples we find useful to illustrate both the scope of commemorative activities and their potential benefits for communities.

The Camp Fire Pet and Wildlife Memorial

The Camp Fire Pet and Wildlife Memorial (pictured above) is a massive granite tablet eulogizing the thousands of animals that died or went missing in the blaze. Perched on the rim of a canyon, its placement intentionally communicates how the fire transformed an entire living landscape. At the monument’s base—more typical of ephemeral memorials than permanent ones—is a collection of photographs, tokens, and stones painted with the names and likenesses of animals lost.

Components of the commemoration beyond the actual monument are less visible. They include the breadth of performative caregiving, communication, and community building that went into its making. It was conceived by Gina Schaffer, an animal rescue volunteer who didn’t have ties to the area before the fire. Schaffer was a magnetic agent who spearheaded online fundraising. Her Facebook page became a place for digital commemoration and collaboration on the memorial design. The monument’s unveiling ultimately drew nearly 100 animal lovers to form a community of care and perform commemoration by decorating the rocks that adorn the monument’s base. This coalescence shows how a static stone memorial can sometimes be more than the sum of its parts.

It’s interesting to note that, despite the memorial’s placement—an allusion to the place-role ties that are the bedrock of indigenous worldviews—the monument and its artifacts communicate a distinctly Western view of interactions between humans and animals. This divergence is an example of how even the most thoughtful commemorations can reach a bit further to understand that not all people experience the same loss or experience loss in the same way.

Commemoration in Minot, North Dakota

Commemorations don’t only remember tragedy, but can also look forward, envisioning more resilient and inclusive communities. Such is the case of the commemorations of the catastrophic 2011 Mouse River Flood in Minot, North Dakota. After the flooding, the City of Minot implemented a buyout program relocating people and structures out of the floodplain. Relocation can dismantle ties to place and often become a second trauma for participants after the initial disaster. Although commemoration after buyouts are rare, preserving the history of a transformed place and those who called it home can serve as a powerful tool for individual and community recovery.

For the 10-year flood anniversary, Minot held a public gathering that included a memory walk organized along a path featuring photos and descriptions of the people and places impacted by the flooding. The walk allowed former residents a chance to revisit altered homeplaces while introducing other visitors to the legacy of a relocated community and the portent of future flood risk. Additionally, more than 3,000 community members submitted photos, both online and in-person, that documented the homes, businesses, and neighborhoods affected by the floods. Images from this digital and physical memory bank were then stitched into a memorial mural entitled, Resilient Together. These commemorations—the memory walk and mural—were intentionally designed for residents with varied histories of disaster impact and relocation, threading their experiences into the tapestry of collective remembrance.

Even though the Minot commemorations are vibrant and inclusive, they mark the remembrance of modern communities whose forebears resettled lands forcibly taken from Indigenous people. The commemorations remain silent about that past and the present it shaped. Imagine how much more impactful and educational they might be if they acknowledged the original inhabitants and how they lived with Mouse River flooding.

Other innovative remembrances such as the Hackensack River Flood Theater and the Biloxi Civil Rights Wade-In pop-up go beyond our examples to illustrate the breadth of perspective required for commemorations to be both restorative and adaptive. These remembrances create forward-looking commemorative communities that transcend generations, cultures, and degrees of impact.

Commemorations that enable communities to acknowledge shared tragedies through a multitude of lived experiences provide the best support for recovery and ultimately promote communal healing and justice. Community engagement in the design process can help avoid the unilateral narratives that are too often chiseled into stone monoliths. Such commemorations not only support inclusion but further stretch our concept of post-disaster memorials as more than words written in stone.