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Voices Fall-Winter 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Comfort in Cloth: The Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt” by Dee Britton here.
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Voices FW2008


Volume 34

Comfort in Cloth: The Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt by Dee Britton

On the evening of December 21, 1988, Pan American Flight 103 flew into the winter solstice skies over London’s Heathrow airport as it began the final leg of a journey that originated in Frankfurt and was to conclude at New York’s JFK airport. The plane carried 259 people; in addition, its cargo hold carried a suitcase that contained a radio cassette player filled with Semtex explosives. The bomb exploded at 7:03 p.m., breaking the plane into pieces. Passengers, their personal effects, and flaming debris rained onto Lockerbie, a small village in southern Scotland. All on board were killed, as well as eleven Lockerbie residents who died when one of the plane’s wings incinerated their neighborhood. Beyond the private tragedies of 270 dead, the Lockerbie air disaster was politically significant. Pan American World Airways was globally perceived as the American flagship, even though it was in actuality a private carrier. Although the bombing of Pan Am 103 was a continuation of a number of terrorist attacks on United States interests, this attack was the first time in modern history that a large group of American civilians were the direct target of a terrorist attack. The bombing of this plane resulted in the United States’ largest death toll from a terrorist attack until September 11, 2001.
Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt
Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt, which commemorates the thirty-five Syracuse students lost in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103. Photos courtesy of the author.
Three thousand miles from the flames and wreckage of Lockerbie, Syracuse University faced its own devastation. Thirty-five students of this central New York university were on board Pan Am 103, returning from a semester’s study in Europe. On the evening of December 21, the plane was filled with youthful passengers: the median age of all the victims was 29 years, and the mode age was 20 years. Although many colleges and universities lost students as a result of the bombing of Pan Am 103, Syracuse University’s loss of thirty-four undergraduates and one graduate student was one of the largest simultaneous student death tolls in United States’ collegiate history. This extensive loss of life ensured that the university would publicly commemorate their students. On the evening of the disaster, students, faculty, and staff joined in a candlelight vigil. Over subsequent years, the university held memorial services, constructed a Place of Remembrance, and instituted a Remembrance Scholars program. Each year, thirty-five seniors are designated Remembrance Scholars and charged with creating activities and traditions that commemorate the lives of the thirty-five SU students lost on Pan Am 103.

Colleges and universities have unique temporal contexts. Department curricula rely upon historical knowledge and disciplinary understanding. Collegiate traditions and rituals provide a group identity that transcends normal temporal boundaries. Yet colleges and universities are transitory in nature; students flow into and out of the university community as they matriculate and then graduate. In 1998, although the bombing of Pan Am 103 was a defining event for the school, it was “history” to undergraduates who were between the ages of eight and twelve when the disaster occurred. Maurice Halbwachs, the first sociologist to use the term “collective memory,” explained that all collective memory is constructed and organized by social groups; individuals then do the actual work of memory (1950). Halbwachs also noted the difference between autobiographical and historical memory. Autobiographical memory is memory of events that a person has experienced, which tends to fade and disappear unless group members occasionally meet and reinforce those memories. Consequently, Halbwachs concluded that autobiographical memory is “rooted in other people....Only group members remember, and this memory nears extinction if they do not get together over long periods of time” (Coser 1992, 24). Historical memory occurs when one does not have personal experience of an event; it is created through discourse, visual imagery, rituals, and celebrations that commemorate the event. Historical memory is thus a memory that is stored and reproduced by social institutions. The annual Remembrance Week at Syracuse University creates and reinforces both autobiographical and historical memory.

As the 1998 Remembrance Scholars gathered to discuss potential commemorative activities for the upcoming tenth anniversary, one of the scholars convinced her peers to create a remembrance quilt. There are many types of quilts, including patchwork, crazy, mourning, victory, and friendship quilts. Historically, quilting has provided a sense of social solidarity and group identity. Remembrance quilts began to appear in the United States in the early 1800s. Individual blocks were made by the women of a community and were joined to create a quilt for someone who was leaving the community. In essence, the remembrance quilt was to remind the owner to remember those left behind as a result of a life transition.

The remembrance quilt concept was transformed by the advent of the NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. Cleve Jones, a gay activist from San Francisco, created the first panel for his best friend. As organizer of the NAMES Project, Jones wanted to create grassroots communities of local support, as well as a national memorial that would visually represent the immense toll of the AIDS epidemic. The three-by-six-foot panels have been made by friends, family members, lovers, and strangers to commemorate those lost to AIDS. A number of people with AIDS have created their own panels prior to their death (Sturken 1997, 188). The AIDS quilt was composed of 1,920 panels the first time it was displayed in Washington, D.C., in October 1987; currently, there are more than forty-six thousand panels.

The Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt is different than traditional remembrance quilts, since those remembered were unable to make their own blocks. Just as the majority of the AIDS quilt panels were created by community members to commemorate their dead, the Syracuse community gathered together to quilt individual blocks in order to remind themselves of those who had been lost from the community.

In a letter dated September 14, 1998, Remembrance Scholar Kimberly Hamilton described the quilt project to the parents of the Syracuse victims and requested “information such as a favorite color, special talent, or longtime hobby. ...We would also encourage you to send any items, fabrics, or photographs you would like incorporated in the quilt. No suggestion is out of the realm of possibility.” None of the Remembrance Scholars had quilting experience and did not realize the immensity of the task that they had assumed. The quilt was to be presented at the tenth anniversary memorial service that would be held a mere three months and one week from the date of the letter. “Had I not been naïve about quilting,” Hamilton later recalled, “I might never have proposed the idea. It has taken much more work than I ever imagined and at times has been very emotional” (Bédy 1998).

Boxes containing a variety of personal objects began to arrive on campus. Several family members sent single earrings that were found in the wreckage; their matches were never found. Another family sent an intramural field hockey shirt that had been recovered from the debris. Prior to its return to the family in 1989, the shirt had been washed multiple times by women in Lockerbie to remove the fuel and mildew that was embedded in the material. A mother sent fabric that she had purchased with her daughter in London; they had planned to use it in a quilt project when her daughter returned. Photos abounded. A mother sent a piece of wallpaper from her daughter’s childhood bedroom. Pajamas, a favorite shirt, a dusty Boston Red Sox cap, a cassette tape of a song written for one of the victims—all of these items were entrusted by grieving families to be incorporated into the quilt.

The Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt is not only a memorial for the bereaved and the university community, but also a work of art. Howard Becker claims that the existence, form, and representation of all works of art are determined by cooperating networks that comprise various “art worlds” (1982). Although many public commemorative projects are created in an environment of conflicting intentions, the Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt was created in an intensely cooperative art world of beginning and experienced quilters. The Remembrance Scholars approached two Syracuse University staff members who were longtime quilters, as well as a group of quilters that met in the university chapel. A flyer inviting students, faculty, and staff was distributed throughout campus. Twenty-nine students (including three males), six staff members, and a faculty member’s spouse answered the initial call. Individual quilt blocks were designed using the information and artifacts sent by the victims’ parents. Students and staff worked to sew and then quilt each individual block. One staff member decided that she wanted to place at least two stitches in every student’s block. A janitor worked on a block representing a young man from his hometown. Ten women who were members of a local quilting guild volunteered to devote an entire December day to completing the quilting, although they had no direct relationship with Syracuse University and had not known any of the students lost on Pan Am 103. Their participation was symbolic of the social cohesion that resulted from the loss of so many students and is typical of the quilting community.

The quilt’s finished size is 87 by 91 inches. The quilt is composed of a center panel measuring 36 by 58 inches, surrounded by thirty-six individual blocks. The design of the center panel is based on an illustration created in 1989 by art student Jonathan Hoefer. A dove of peace is formed by the names of the thirty-five students. The Remembrance Scholars approached a university staff member, an experienced quilter, to create the center panel. Initially, she was hesitant, reasoning:
This is a painful thing for all of us, I have grieved privately for the thirty-five students who were lost in that terrorist attack. One side of me shies away, saying, “It’s time to let it rest, it’s history, why bring it up again?” And the other side of me understands that those families do not want their children to be forgotten. What a tragic thing to have so many talented young lives so cruelly thrown away, and what agony those families have had to endure. This is too worthwhile to ignore, and I can see they need a lot of help to pull this off. I just wish they had started last February, not in mid-October!
The machine-appliquéd work took her more than eighty hours over twenty-four days.

Thirty-five blocks are individual commemorations of the students, arranged alphabetically by last name. Letters that family members sent in response to the quilting project are folded accordion style and sewn into light orange borders adjacent to the student’s block. A local sewing store volunteered to embroider the students’ names on the blue lattice beneath the blocks. The individual blocks are poignant reminders of the vibrant interests and activities that filled the lives of the students who were killed in the bombing. A pocket of a favorite shirt holds a cassette tape. Favorite authors and quotations are interspersed with athletic logos, flowers, musical instruments, and theatrical symbols. On the upper right-hand corner of the quilt, two blocks are intertwined by blue and red bandanas tied together. Eric and Jason Coker were twins. When they were small, their mother dressed Eric in blue and Jason in red in order to identify them at a distance. As college students, they continued this differentiation when they donned blue and red bandanas while they worked for a landscape company. Although they had matriculated at different colleges, they both chose to study in the Syracuse University London Program during the fall 1988 semester. To mark their semester together, they decided to receive symbolic tattoos; Eric chose the symbol for the English pound, while Jason selected the British flag. Those tattoos were used after the crash to identify the twins, so that their bodies could be returned to their family. These important symbols are included in their quilt blocks. Their childhood is also embedded in their quilt blocks. Eric and Jason grew up with a beloved dog, Shad, and a representation of his doghouse crosses their blocks. Eric and Jason were individuals who had strong individual interests and talents, yet they were tied together in both life and death, as surely as the two bandanas unite their blocks.

The quilt’s thirty-sixth block is an embroidered dedication, using words borrowed from the university’s permanent memorial:
This Remembrance Quilt is dedicated to the memory of the 35 students enrolled in Syracuse University’s Division of International Programs Abroad who died with 235 others as the result of a plane crash December 21, 1988, caused by a terrorist bomb.
The dedication wording is not the only component borrowed from other memorials for the Pan Am 103 victims. Steve Berrell’s and Karen Hunt’s quilt blocks include quotations that are also found on their plaques at Lockerbie’s Dryfesdale Cemetery. Wendy Lincoln’s quilt block includes the dancer’s silhouette that marks the headstone in her hometown cemetery. Cindy Smith’s block includes an angel representing the mahogany angel that was carved in her memory and is used every year in her hometown crèche.

The quilt was completed in time for the tenth anniversary memorial service. Its usual home is Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University, but it has traveled to a number of different sites. After an exhibition in Lockerbie in 2000, a local representative wrote the following in the remembrance book that accompanies the quilt:
“Remember us when you see these blocks.” During its three week stay with us the Remembrance Quilt has brought with it an enormous wealth of feelings, thoughts, information, and love. The love contained within it is overwhelming and is tangible. We in Lockerbie wish to include our love into the quilt’s embrace and so with our love we send it back to you.
The Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt celebrates the individual lives lost on that winter solstice evening. The comfort and warmth that the quilt provides to family members and the Syracuse University community is unmatched by the many other memorials that dot the United States and Scotland. As Shannon Davis’s mother stated during an exhibition of the quilt shortly before the fifteenth anniversary of the downing of Pan Am 103, “Looking at the quilt and knowing it’s coming close to the fifteenth anniversary, of course, my heart still aches for Shannon not being with us. But when I see the quilt, I understand something bigger than us is at work” (Bodwicz 2003)


Dee Britton is a lecturer in the Syracuse University Department of Sociology and formerly served as visiting professor at Colgate University and Hamilton College. She has lectured on the commemorations of the Pan Am 103 bombing throughout the United States and in Italy, Sweden, and Spain.

Detail of the Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt’s center panel.  The names of the students form a dove of peace.
Detail of the quilt’s center panel. The names of the students form a dove of peace.

The individual blocks are poignant reminders of the vibrant interests and activities that filled the lives of the students who were killed in the bombing.


Becker, Howard. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bédy, Zoltan. December 7, 1998. Personal Artifacts Form Remembrance Quilt. Syracuse Record.

Bodwicz, Marty. August 13, 2003. Shelton Woman Finds Comfort in Quilt. Huntington Herald.

Coser, Lewis. 1992. Introduction: Maurice Halbwachs, 1877–1945. In Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 1–34. Ed. and trans. Lewis Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1950. The Collective Memory. New York: Harper-Colophon.

Sturken, Marita. 1997. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Fall-Winter 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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