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Why a memorial for Covid-19 victims can help us process our grief, and our anger, too.

Washington DC’s iconic Reflecting Pool was lighted as a Covid-19 memorial on January 19, 2021, just before inaugural proceedings. The temporary installation was one example of how we might remember.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Josh’s uncle Ben died of Covid-19 in December. Nothing about mourning Ben has felt normal to Josh. The same disease that took Ben’s life made it impossible for Josh to attend his funeral, where the attendance was capped at 20 people to comply with state regulations. It also prevented Josh from being able to visit Ben before he died; it simply wasn’t safe. “This person, who I couldn’t see when he was sick, is now gone,” Josh said. “But his death is just as ephemeral as his life was in the months leading up to it: A figure half-glimpsed on a Zoom call, a mention in an email or a text from my dad.”

Losing someone during this pandemic year could feel less like a death than a vanishing, twisted cosmic ghosting. Josh has tried to find some comfort in digital videos of Ben’s life compiled by a family member, but says it feels strange, uncanny, a little inhuman. “Ben died a digital phantom of sorts, thanks to how Covid has destabilized our sense of human connection,” he said. “And here I am, trying to find solace from more streaming video of him.”

Lisa’s father, Kenneth, was growing tomatoes when he died of Covid-19 in August. He’d moved into an assisted living facility nine months earlier. Gregarious, hard-working, and green-thumbed, he cleaned up a neglected greenhouse at his new home. “His love was his tomato plants,” Lisa said. “Residents and staff looked forward to eating them. When Dad left for the hospital, ripe tomatoes were left on the vines.”

Trying to understand his absence has been painful. “I remain haunted by the picture of my dad dying alone without his family at his side, singing, praying, and holding hands like I always imagined we would,” Lisa said. She finds herself singing his favorite hymns, spreading photos of her father on her floor, arranged in a timeline to represent his life. “I pray. I see a therapist. I cry every day. I want to live a life that he would be proud of.”

Elizabeth’s co-worker was in his 40s, married, with two young daughters. He loved to help people; “he fed the hungry, helped orphans, and served and loved everyone in spectacular ways,” she said. In December, he contracted Covid-19. He drove himself to the hospital. By that night, he’d taken a serious turn for the worse. He stayed on life support until mid-January but eventually succumbed to the virus.

The company spent the month after his death inviting his co-workers to mourn together on a half-hour Zoom at the start of every day. “People from different walks of life, executives to warehouse, different religions and denominations bringing their prayers and poems and meaningful stories to help process as a group,” she said. “I cried, I was inspired, I laughed. It really helped me process.”

Emily’s grandfather, a Korean War veteran, tested positive for Covid-19 in April 2020. He died exactly a month later. “I asked him if he was upset that he got Covid and he said, ‘I’ve lived a charmed life,’” she said.

She’s processed her grief by listening. She replays voicemails from her grandfather, listening to him sing happy birthday or convey an important message. “Everything happened so fast with Covid that I like to re-live the moments when he was so alive,” she said. Emily is a filmmaker, so her parents asked her to film the funeral to send to relatives who couldn’t be there — including her grandmother. “Now, she watches the funeral and truly feels like she was there. She gets to say goodbye as many times as she wants.”

A woman holds up an image of her son at a memorial to Covid-19 victims in March in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
LightRocket via Getty Images

When the pandemic penetrated American borders and consciousness, many people seemed startled to learn that this had all happened before, barely a hundred years earlier, in 1918. About 50 million people worldwide died from the “Spanish flu,” including 675,000 people in the US.

So many lives snuffed out — parents and children and partners and loved ones simply gone. Today, many of us only know the barest outlines.

Paul Farber’s great-great-grandmother, Esther, an immigrant living in southern Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was among those who died in 1918. Farber is the director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and design studio that studies the history and future of monuments. As the Covid-19 pandemic made landfall in the US, staffers at Monument Lab noticed something strange. “Our public monument landscape was largely void of recognition of the 1918 pandemic,” he said. “It was a reminder that only a small sliver of our history ever gets elevated on a pedestal and put in bronze and marble.” There’s no 1918 influenza pandemic museum, no memorial to the loss, no slabs of concrete with names carved into them or placards reminding visitors when, how, and why it happened.

In a country covered in monuments and memorials, it’s as if the world-altering event, and the lives that were lost, were wiped from public memory.

Americans aren’t great at remembering the less jubilant parts of our past, but there’s a dark cultural reason for this particular amnesia. The 1918 influenza pandemic hit at the end of World War I, and a virus that reduced strong men to vomiting, fever, and diarrhea disrupted the narrative of victory the country wanted to celebrate. The pandemic would continue to rage for two years and sustain three waves, but President Woodrow Wilson rarely talked about it.

By 1920, when the final wave had subsided, most people had returned to their pre-war isolationism, wanting to keep the US separate from the rest of the world. The pandemic was another outside force to be shunned. To build a memorial honoring those who died would be to remember the enemy we couldn’t defeat.

We are living through another period of enormous loss, although light is visible over the horizon. But what will we do when that light breaks? Will our attempts to restore normalcy — to move on, to live our lives — mean letting the stories of the dead fall into the shadows? Does it matter how we remember?

The national memorials through which we have commemorated overwhelming loss can tell us a lot about how — and whether — we will remember the victims of Covid-19. And with so many robbed of the chance to mourn in traditional ways, Vox asked the bereaved to imagine what we might do.

Memorials loom over the landscape, disrupting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We believe we are victors, not victims. We do the right thing. We pull together. We are at liberty to live as we please. We are strong, and civilized, and exceptional. But memorials remind us that sometimes, we are none of these things. Sometimes we are on the wrong side. Or the world isn’t fair. Or we refuse to take care of one another the way we should.

The sun sets on the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City seen from the 9/11 Empty Sky Memorial in Liberty State Park in New Jersey.
Memorials take all forms: large and small, national and local. The Empty Sky Memorial was erected at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, to mark the place residents gathered in horror on Sept. 11, 2001, to watch events in lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Monuments are how winners celebrate. Memorials commemorate the dead and also give visitors a place to process grief. America is full of monuments, but it’s also full of memorials, some of which stand witness to enormous loss. The nation’s capital is dotted with them, staking a claim to lives cut short. Veterans of wars. Soldiers and police killed in the line of duty. Citizens who were sent to internment camps. Jews exterminated in death camps. Walking around Washington, DC, sometimes feels like moving from one hushed and sacred space to another, a never-ending memento mori.

The same effect is replicated all over the country. In a single one-mile stroll in New York City’s Battery Park, you’ll encounter a “living memorial” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage dedicated to 6 million Jewish lives exterminated during the Holocaust, another dedicated to the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11 as well as 6 victims of the 1993 bombing, and a third dedicated to the 1 million Irish people who starved to death between 1845 and 1852 when the country’s potato crop was wiped out during the Great Hunger.

At each stop, the sheer scale of the loss is enough to bury the visitor. On screens, Holocaust survivors tell their stories. Names are inscribed on the granite that surrounds fountains set into the ground where the Twin Towers once stood. A grassy, man-made hill overlooking the placid Hudson River is interrupted by a large, heavy rock bearing a carved Celtic cross, a tombstone for a million.

Not far away, a memorial to New Yorkers who died of AIDS during the epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s — more than 100,000 people — stands near the spot where St. Vincent’s Hospital, which tended many of the sick, once stood. The memorial is fairly new; in fact, I recently learned, it exists largely because of an article that documentarian David France wrote for New York magazine 10 years ago.

“It was about the tearing down of St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village, and how for a lack of a national monument for AIDS, that place had stood in as one,” France told me. “That article started a movement to build those memorials, and build the one right across the street.” It’s a huge structure, white triangular steel that casts a shadow of slats. In the pavement around it are engraved passages from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” Underneath, people can walk, sit, and reflect near a granite fountain.

Each of these sites does more than just pay tribute to the lost. They tell a story. They force us to reckon with questions that do not have simple answers. How and why did the Holocaust happen? Who is to blame for destruction and death? What happens when government is complacent? Are we complicit?

A memorial’s most important task may be demanding accountability. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the world was beginning to come to terms with what was happening, a strange phenomenon began: sightings of face masks placed on statues. “In Wuhan, or in Lombardy, Italy, or across the United States, the face mask on a monument followed that wave,” Monument Lab’s Farber told me. The sightings underlined something important — that people were using public art to call for help.

“People were advocating not just for care of their fellow residents in a city or town,” Farber said. “They were calling federal authorities to task who had largely left us on our own to deal. These were attempts to call out the fact that we need systems of care, and we will look out for one another.”

That’s what we need in a public site — especially when it comes to public health crises for which we were simply not, or refused to be, prepared. We need spaces to mourn, but also spaces that call power to account, Farber said. “Even now, as the effort to memorialize Covid-19 is underway, that pairing together of mourning and fighting can be seen in the grassroots memorials done by artists and people on the local level. We’re both contending with the now more than half a million Americans killed in a pandemic, and how we cope, how we survive, how we make sense of that. Because it actually is not something we can make sense of.”

In 1985, the activist Cleve Jones had an idea: make a quilt to commemorate people who died of AIDS-related causes, at a time when they often didn’t receive funerals because of social stigma. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed in 1987 during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and became a place where those who lost a loved one to AIDS-related causes could come and mourn.

Each square of the quilt is meant to recognize someone and crafted from an eclectic array of materials by thousands of creators. Its last public display as one piece was in 1996; by then, it was big enough to cover swaths of the National Mall in Washington, DC. It continues to grow — a living memorial to a massive, inconceivable loss of life. It currently weighs 55 tons.

From 2001 to 2020, Julie Rhoad was president at the NAMES Project Foundation, where she was the caretaker of the quilt. Now she’s the senior director at MASS Design Group, a team of architects, builders, engineers, designers, artists, and researchers in 20 countries who build and advocate for “architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.” She said she believes the quilt is a prime example of how a memorial to a public health crisis can both preserve memory and promote accountability.

“The Quilt contains the stories of over 100,000 individuals whose lives were cut short by AIDS,” she explained in an email. “These stories told by more than 200,000 loved ones — the survivors — provide powerful personal testimony about life, love, and loss.” And because it’s so vast, so heavy, so enormous, witnessing it is visceral; it is a demonstration of the enormity of the crisis.

As it’s grown, the function of the quilt has changed as well. “When the first 1,920 panels of the Quilt were displayed on the National Mall, its purpose was transformed,” Rhoad wrote. “The panels and the lives remembered in its stitches became some of the greatest advocates for the AIDS cause that the cause of human rights has ever known.”

The first incarnation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfurled on the Mall in Washington, DC, in 1987, at a time of great social stigma for sufferers. But laid out steps from the American seat of power, the quilt made the lives of victims tangible — it served as a demonstration of the enormity of the crisis.
Scott Stewart/AP

Memorials are for people who are immediately impacted by grief, but also for the communities around them, cities, nations, and the world. Tourists flock to memorials even if they weren’t directly involved in the tragedy; some are there out of curiosity, or to tick a sightseeing box, but others are there for another experience. “Their very existence reminds us that the past lives into the present,” Farber said. Memorials gather the past — items we owned, our names, things that happened — and then work like low-fi time machines, preserving that past for us to step into.

They’re also vessels to preserve the present for the future. I recently walked loops around the 9/11 Memorial, a place I’ve passed dozens of times before. I was a freshman in college, 150 miles from New York City, when the Twin Towers came down. I remember 9/11 clearly. It defines my adult life. Now I teach at a college a mile from the site, and most of my students were born after it happened. Their children will be even further from it. They know what they’ve seen on TV, what their parents told them, what I can tell them. But that memorial, covered in names of people they didn’t know, is a link to people who ought not to be forgotten.

Permanent public memorials for Covid-19 must be spaces for us to mourn those who died, the time we lost, the parts of ourselves that disappeared. But if they stop there — if powerful people are able to evade telling the story, accepting accountability, and imploring us to do better next time — then the memorials will have failed. I think we need places to be angry, too.

The trouble is that the story will change depending on who’s telling it. We have no common narrative about what has happened over the past year.

Building a place to recognize lives that didn’t need or choose to be ended — to recognize lives that ended violently and unjustly — is harrowing. It’s even harder when a lot of people would like to forget. But we need places that break our narratives and replace them with truth.

In Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice stands on a six-acre site, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in collaboration with MASS Design Group. Completed in 2018, the memorial draws a line from slavery to lynching and racial terror to African Americans who suffered humiliation during Jim Crow-era segregation, and, finally, to racially-based police violence and a broken criminal justice system.

The memorial is rich with text, art, and meaning, but its centerpiece is breathtaking: a pavilion in which 800 6-foot steel monuments stand on end or hang from the ceiling. Each bears the name of an American county, as well as victims of lynchings that occurred in that county. Outside the pavilion, duplicates of the columns lay on the ground like coffins. The EJI intends for those counties to be able to claim their column and place it on their own turf as a reminder of the racial terror that occurred there.

“The memorial is more than a static monument,” the EJI’s website explains. “It is EJI’s hope that the National Memorial inspires communities across the nation to enter an era of truth-telling about racial injustice and their own local histories.”

Listings of victims by name are a frequent motif in memorials. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama features 800 steel monuments, one for each county where its founders counted a lynching. Each also bears names of victims.
Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images

Truth-telling is painful and liberating. Before we can do it, we have to reflect honestly, facing up to the past: letting it become part of ourselves, rewriting our narratives. We must open ourselves to facts that may shock, wound, embarrass, or offend us. And then we must find space to grieve those who were lost.

Every mass loss is different and has complex reasons for its occurrence: bad policies, bad politics, oppressive forces, failure to prepare, arrogance, inequality, uncaring leadership. The current pandemic is no different. “When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are experiencing catastrophic loss exacerbated by inequity that preceded the pandemic, and that has only been brought into more relief,” Farber told me.

So we cannot only mourn; we must be accountable. “It’s tempting to try to wrap all this up and simplify it,” Farber said. As we start to be able to imagine a future beyond this pandemic, it’s easy to talk about going back to normal, to simply try to forget. “But it’s so complex, and we need spaces to work out that complexity,” he said. “To understand how we got here and where we are going.”

Impromptu memorials have cropped up over the past year all over the world — small-scale memorials outside churches, in parks, near favorite places. In New York, the Bronx Documentary Center opened an exhibition to commemorate Covid-19 victims, shortly before the Day of the Dead in October. At a gallery show in Los Angeles, nearly a year into the pandemic, the artist Divya Mehra inflated two 20-foot tall emojis: a wave and an urn — a “tsunami of grief.” Mehra’s father died in 2015, long before the pandemic, and her grief was a place to start. The work mixes the enormity of the loss with that feeling of odd triteness that comes from processing everything through these damn screens all year.

Yet we can’t dismiss the screens entirely because they’re where we’ve been mourning. We’ve attended vigils, memorial services, and shivas on Zoom. In Washington, DC, the artist Robin Bell projected photos and messages of mourning, collected from grieving loved ones via social media onto a building.

Months ago I started following @FacesofCOVID on Twitter. It’s run by two friends, Alex Goldstein and Scott Zoback. Every day, they post several dozen obituaries with pictures and stories, some submitted by family members and friends. A year into the pandemic, about 150,000 people follow the account. Someone might retweet their lost loved one’s obituary, adding remembrance and sharing their story. Initiatives like this work against the fear that a loved one will simply vanish from history, as if their loss was simply collateral damage en route to victory over a virus.

Artists will be confronting the unique and deadly cocktail of ingredients that led to the loss of so many lives — the virtual realities, the failures of leadership, the epistemic crisis — for a very long time. But we need public spaces, too, spots to hold in common and begin rebuilding our understanding of where we’ve come from and what our future should look like. “Memorials are places, of course, where we leave our feelings of grief,” Farber said. “But they can also be places where we try to imagine how to proceed.”

The number of lives lost to Covid-19 is so large that the National Cathedral marked the 400,000 American deaths in January by tolling its bell 400 times, one for every thousand lives lost.
Getty Images

So, then, how shall we proceed? Start by listening to the bereaved.

“I felt an interior shift when President Biden and Vice President Harris recognized the Covid victims,” Lisa said of the Covid-19 memorial held the evening before the inauguration in January. “I audibly sighed. I felt like my dad was remembered.”

“It’s easy to see each huge, morbid milestone go by without it taking much effect,” Emily said. “When I saw the masses of flags in Washington [commemorating lives lost], it struck me just how many people passed.” So many memorials do this well: They make a seemingly undifferentiated sea of lives individual, tactile markers that can be seen and touched.

When Lisa envisions a national memorial to those who died of Covid-19, she imagines “a large public garden divided into different areas — flowers, evergreens, and vegetables.” Her father loved plants. “Footpaths would weave through the garden. Perhaps there would be a monument at the entrance. Volunteer groups could rotate tending it, and there could be a space with rotating exhibits about loss, and the frontline workers.”

Plants come to mind for Emily as well: “I keep feeling that it would be nice to breathe new life into the world, and my mind keeps going back to trees.”

Trees and plants seem to recur frequently in the memorials we already have. Something elemental in us responds to the promise of new life and resilience, and maybe some echo of the mythologies that revolve around trees.

On a terrace outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage, artist Andy Goldsworthy installed boulders through which trees are growing, life cracking through the heavy darkness. At the World Trade Center, trees dot the grounds at even intervals, symbolizing rebirth, and at their center stands the “Survivor Tree.” It was discovered in the rubble, nursed back to health in the Bronx, and now sits in the midst of the younger trees. When you step back, it looks like the Tree of Life.

The MASS Design Group has a similar idea for a memorial to victims of Covid-19. With the award-winning architect Gary Hilderbrand as a collaborator, they proposed a public exhibition — a “spectacle,” as Michael Murphy, the organization’s CEO, told me by email — that would cover the National Mall with thousands of trees, one for every 100 victims, representing species of trees from all over the US. “The idea was that we would put a forest on the National Mall,” he said. “That forest of witness trees would then in the spring be moved to the parts of the country that they were from and the names on them represented. We would have an installation that spoke to life lost, remembered, and planted for a future shelter and value we can’t quite understand, but can’t be allowed to forget.”

The difficulty of the task comes back to the massive number of lives that Covid-19 has claimed: more than half a million and counting, and another 2 million outside American borders. Every tree or flag in a memorial like this has to stand in for hundreds of people. On February 22, the National Cathedral in Washington tolled its bell 500 times — each toll represented 1,000 deaths. To hear all those deep, grave tones echoing through the air and know that each of them is 1,000 people is staggering. To pay tribute to their lives on a grand scale seems impossible; while it’s always hard to gather the names of the deceased and inscribe them in stone, it seems more difficult when we’ll likely never know the full number and every name.

“With Covid-19 and with AIDS, there’s no way to say even how many [died],” David France reminded me. “It’s all just a rounded number. We’ll never know. And even if we knew the number, we would never know the names.”

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to memorialize the dead, as an act of collaborative mourning and remembrance. “Each state could have a place where all the names are posted, so the families have a place to grieve,” Elizabeth said. “And we could have a national day of service, coordinating things to do for one another to rebuild bonds — to refocus on serving one another.”

MASS Design Group’s Murphy believes that memorials should inspire action, some form of participation. “I think those memorials which just exist and mark names, but don’t force us to act, are less successful. When people walk away from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with a rubbing of a name, they are tactically engaging the wall. They are looking for that name of their loved one. They are physically feeling, touching, and reflecting on a name among many names. This is powerful, because your mind must engage what we call the intimate and the infinite.”

Retired Marine Paul Masi of Bethpage, New York, pauses at the name of his high school classmate, Robert Zwerlein, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day 2019. The memorial encourages mourners to interact with it in a tangible way — to search for a name, to take home a tracing, to leave something behind.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Emily says she would like to know the stories of others like her grandfather. “I feel like each person should be given some identifier,” she said. “I’d love to read about someone who I didn’t know but went through a similar experience as my grandfather. Something about what they did for work, what they were like, what brought them joy. The people who loved them.”

When Josh thinks about a memorial that might include his uncle Ben, “I keep coming back to this idea of physicality,” he said. “That’s what Covid-19 has taken from us.”

We’ve had to interact with sickness and death in unbearable ways through pixelated screens. To mourn, we’ll need real spaces, ones we can touch, gaze at through tears, explain to our children, spaces where we can tell and hear stories. “No screens or videos: We’ve had far too many of those when trying to reconcile loss over the past year,” Josh said. “Give us monuments. Give us statues. Give us objects we can touch and regard in physical volume. Make us aware of the physical spaces now unoccupied. A way of giving voice to those we’ve lost. We were here. We still matter. We didn’t vanish.

Alissa Wilkinson is Vox’s film critic and an associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York. She has been writing about film and culture since 2006.

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