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OPINION

Honoring the victims of the coronavirus

The most powerful memorials of recent years probe uncomfortable truths.

A volunteer placed flags in front of the Washington Monument on Tuesday to honor the 200,000 Americans who have died of the coronavirus.
A volunteer placed flags in front of the Washington Monument on Tuesday to honor the 200,000 Americans who have died of the coronavirus.Anna Moneymaker/NYT

As the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States ticked past 200,000 this week and approached 1 million worldwide, spontaneous memorials have sprung up to commemorate the dead. Paper hearts fluttering from tree branches in California; crosses and red balloons on a beach in Brazil; thousands of small flags planted in a Texas backyard. Meanwhile, an architectural firm in Uruguay announced plans for the world’s first permanent monument to victims of the pandemic, a massive, disc-like structure full of symbolic voids and bridges that promises to be “an expression of hope in an uncertain time.” Endorsed by the government but privately funded, it describes a place for mourning, solidarity, history, even a reminder of climate change.

A rendering of a new memorial to honor those affected by COVID-19 in Uruguay.
A rendering of a new memorial to honor those affected by COVID-19 in Uruguay.Gómez Platero

In the crowded arena of public remembrance, memorials to disease victims are quite rare. There may be only a handful of monuments to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people. Hong Kong has a small garden spot commemorating medical workers who died fighting the SARS epidemic, and the ruins of an abandoned smallpox hospital are mostly forgotten on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

In this 1988 photo, people watch as almost 1,500 quilt panels bearing the names of New York-area residents who have died of AIDS are unfolded on the Great Lawn in New York's Central Park.
In this 1988 photo, people watch as almost 1,500 quilt panels bearing the names of New York-area residents who have died of AIDS are unfolded on the Great Lawn in New York's Central Park.WILBUR FUNCHES/Associated Press

One vivid exception is the AIDS quilt, a patchwork of 48,000 home-made panels dedicated to individual victims, last exhibited in its entirety on the National Mall in 1996. Eric Höweler of the architectural firm Höweler + Yoon, who helped design the memorial to Officer Sean Collier on the MIT campus even as the city was still grieving the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, said in an interview that the AIDS quilt manages to represent both an impromptu outpouring of grief and something more permanent. “It was intimate and personal but also produced a monumental effect,” he said. Such touching, informal gestures go against the grain of our “great man on a horse” tradition of built memorials, which tend to celebrate national victories.

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But that tradition is changing. As nations confront their histories with slavery and colonialism, depictions of triumphant war heroes no longer meet the moment, if they ever did. The most powerful memorials of recent years probe uncomfortable truths about US history, from Maya Lin’s groundbreaking Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to Black American victims of lynchings, in Montgomery, Ala. You have to wonder whether it is somehow easier, in these fraught times, to recognize victims rather than heroes.

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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. honors thousands of people killed in racist lynchings.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. honors thousands of people killed in racist lynchings.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

For Meejin Yoon, whose work on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia has garnered extensive praise, the question is more nuanced. She sees the enslaved people commemorated in the UVA memorial as heroes too: brave casualties of an abhorrent system “who deserve to be honored and dignified.” The memorial includes the names of known enslaved people who helped build Thomas Jefferson’s campus, but several lines are left blank, because the story is unfinished. Yoon says too many memorials “try to close the topic or make it knowable to the public,” when history is never really closed or static.

In Vermont, a different kind of memorial to enslaved individuals was installed earlier this month. Two brass plaques bearing the names of enslaved people owned by the daughter of Ethan Allen, founder of the state of Vermont, were embedded in the street in Burlington, as part of a national “stopping stones” project. Modeled after the stolperstein, or stumbling stones, bearing the names of people seized from their homes in Nazi Germany, the Vermont plaques are an example of a “distributed memorial,” scattered about instead of anchored to one site. People going about ordinary business literally stumble upon these markers and are forced to contemplate their meaning. They are effective precisely because they are unexpected. Another powerful distributed memorial, seen on far too many roadways, is the “ghost bike” — a bicycle painted white that marks the location of a fatal accident.

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A ghost bike left at the corner of Massachusetts Ave and Beacon Street in 2015 honored a Boston surgeon killed in a Back Bay bicycle crash.
A ghost bike left at the corner of Massachusetts Ave and Beacon Street in 2015 honored a Boston surgeon killed in a Back Bay bicycle crash.David L. Ryan

In the end, there is no one perfect typology for memorial design. Many communities are now developing “living memorials” — school curricula, lectures, or activist campaigns — to supplement a physical monument. The new memorial to Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King planned for the Boston Common, with an associated film and proposed center for economic justice, is a good example.

Here the imagination opens wider for the most appropriate way to commemorate the pandemic. Beyond concrete and steel, perhaps the best way to honor America’s victims of COVID-19, including those still living with lingering effects of the disease, is with the enactment of universal access to affordable health care, once and — truly — for all.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.