In retrospect, the most moving ceremony of sorrow that I’ve ever attended was a commemoration of the Fall of Saigon among Vietnamese at the Rochester Community College (Rochester, Minnesota) in 1983 or 1984. The demise of an entire nation, after all, was incomparably massive in scale. In recent years, I’ve found ceremonies for individuals killed by gun violence to be just as sorrowful and moving as that gathering some 35 years ago. Three years ago, I was at St. Barbara’s in Little Saigon for the funeral mass of Tin Nguyen, one of the victims of the San Bernardino shooting. Another was the memorial held on campus this week for the Pepperdine first-year student killed at the Borderline shooting.
I didn’t know Alaina Housley, but she was initially assigned to one of my Great Books sections. In a humorous twist of assignment, this section was supposed to include sixteen students whose first names begin with the letter A: Aaron, Alaina, Alexa, Alexander, Alexis, Alexis, Alice, Alicia, Allison, Alyssa, Andrew, Annabelle, Ashley, Ashley, Ashton, and Ashtyn. (Andrew, though, goes by his middle name which begins with R.) Before school began, however, Alaina and two or three other students were reassigned to another section.
All the same, many of her friends are my current students, and they have been profoundly affected by her death. At the memorial, their grief was conjoined to the grief of the larger community. (“Was conjoined to”: The passive tense is deliberate because it is appropriate in this case.) It began in the early hours of November 9, when the news of the Borderline shooting caused great anxiety among many. There were two gatherings for prayer later that day: at the theatre at noon (when the president broke the news that she was among the dead); and at the amphitheater in the evening. The wildfires, however, disrupted the mourning. The communal grief was therefore delayed, and people were left to mourn on their own. This background added significance to the collective emotion at the memorial. The age of the victims, of course, was another reason for the large scale of sadness. Tin Nguyen was thirty-one and engaged to be married. Alaina was still a teenager looking forward to a lot of things ahead, including studying abroad in Florence during the next academic year.
But there was a lot more that made this memorial among the most moving ceremonies that I’ve seen. It was very well-designed and well-executed. In the first half of the Iliad, the Greeks and Trojans agreed to a short truce for the sake of the countless dead. They collected the corpses, mourned the dead, sent them to the Underworld in burning rituals, and partook in a special evening meal: “Then all that night the long-haired Acheans feasted / as Trojans and Trojan allies took their meal in Troy” (7.549-550 in the Penguin Classics translation by Robert Fagles). My students could tell you that this episode is one of my favorites in all of the Iliad. There is a beautiful sequence to this episode, and there was a beautiful sequence to the design of yesterday’s memorial.
In speaking, for example, the ceremony was bookended by welcoming remarks from the University chaplain and the closing prayer from the presidents. In between, Alaina’s parents spoke. Pepperdine alumni both, their reflections wonderfully complimented each other: his was often funny with anecdotes; hers included many affirmations on one’s trust in God. The homilist happened to be one of their close friends (and a faculty in the Religion Division). Then her suitemates, including three of my students, took turn to read Psalm 23. Later, her Great Books professor read from the Gospel of John: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
There was also a lot of music, and the event opened with a rendition of “Ave Maria” by a Filipino men’s group from Los Angeles. (Alaina’s mother is Filipina American and Alaina was also a fan of this group.) Accompanied by a music faculty on piano, her roommate performed a solo in her memory, and two choirs sang. The smaller choir (above) performed in a capella, which was, intentional or not, well aligned to the musical tradition of the Churches of Christ. The larger choir (below) sang a number drawn from or inspired by the Catholic mass. Last but not least was the fact that the reception served Alaina’s favorite ice cream: Ben and Jerry’s The Tonight Dough. It made me think back to the aforementioned tie between food and commemoration in Homer’s epic. It was more than symbolic, for that ice cream bar turned out to be my lunch because I had to leave right away for my history survey course that ran for nearly four hours. In fact, it kept me going without consuming anything else until 3:30pm.
Besides Alaina’s suitemates, her dormmates wore black and sat together behind the speakers. I saw a number of former and current students among the mourners in the stand, and of course many staff and faculty. A colleague from International Studies and Languages sat next to me and she was in hushed cries for the better part of the memorial. (“In silence,” Homer tells us about the Trojans, “they piled the corpses on the pyre, their heart breaking.”) On the way out, I caught sight of an associate dean who was just as teary. I ran into a senior faculty in humanities who said she “lost it at the Ave Maria.” I saw two students standing by the doors, both guys. I extended my right hand and they hugged me instead. Now you know why it was one of the most moving events that I’ve ever attended.