The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid-19 memorial in D.C. gives Americans a place to reconcile their loss

The ongoing pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of Americans grieving in isolation. A public art installation on the National Mall provides a space to mourn as a nation.

Chris Mora of California sits in the art installation “In America: Remember,” which features flags representing every covid-19 death in the United States. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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The messages are short. Succinct. Devastating.

“Fly with the angels, Peggy.”

“To my aunt, one of my favorite humans. We miss you.”

“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make you proud. Te amo grandpa.”

“Sue Kaye Ziemann fought and beat leukemia, but covid took her too soon.”

Walking through the hundreds of thousands of white flags blanketing 20 acres of the National Mall to honor the Americans who have died of covid-19, visitors stop to write a few words of farewell on the flags themselves. They are goodbyes that many never had a chance to say in person. It is an intimate goodbye. And a national one.

Friends, families and other relatives of covid victims have made their way from all corners of the country to see “In America: Remember,” a public art installation by Maryland artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, which honors the more than 680,000 people in the United States who have died of the disease caused by the coronavirus. Each flag in the exhibit, which continues through Sunday on the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument, represents a life taken.

Hundreds of rows of flags distributed in 149 sections. Each flag a foot from the ground. A sea of white. The immensity of loss is breathtaking. Installation of the exhibit took workers, including more than 300 volunteers, three days to complete.

In each section, the pain of strangers is shared.

On the corner of section 29, Ellen Benson, from Bergen County, N.J., places a white flag that reads: “In our hearts and in our souls every single day. I imagine you watching over me and the boys and all of those you love. I can’t believe you are gone. Still seems like a bad dream,” with a red heart covering the back of the flag.

Just days after countries started to seal borders, schools closed and people went into lockdowns, Benson lost her husband, and her two sons lost a father. Jim Judd, 63, a part-owner of a small construction business, died at home of covid-19 on April 7, 2020. That day was their 30th anniversary.

Even though it’s been a year and a half, it feels like everything happened just yesterday, Benson said. “What you think life will look like comes to a sudden halt and leaves you with a hole. It was the four of us. Now, it’s three,” she said shedding tears.

This trip to the memorial is the beginning of her healing process and a way to say goodbye, she said. She needs to grieve her husband but wishes people understood that the entire nation, regardless of background, is grieving too.

“The loss and the grief that I feel is no different than if you were a Republican or an atheist, or Jewish or Catholic. This is our nation. This is our country. This is humanity,” she said.

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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has left millions of Americans trying to reconcile the human cost behind this public health crisis. Some have learned how to deal with the tragedy of the sudden loss of a loved one, and others are still looking for answers as to how it happened and why at this scale.

Firstenberg was inspired to create the art installation after hearing remarks that covid-19 deaths were just a statistic. “I thought that it’s my responsibility to do art, to stop people in their tracks and make them think about what is happening,” she said.

Visitors to the exhibit, situated across Constitution Avenue from the White House and the Ellipse stop at a table to pick up a marker to personalize a flag with a simple thought or a message for their loved one.

At 15th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, passersby, tourists and families are met by a red and white billboard displaying the number of covid-19 deaths, which Firstenberg updates every day.

“This is the worst loss of life,” said Rudy Amato, 31, from Connecticut, who was visiting other D.C. memorials before he stumbled upon the installation. “It kind of gives you a realization of how serious this is.”

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Doriane White Palmer, a nurse at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and her husband, Greg Palmer, who is also a health-care provider in a private facility in Baltimore, came from Northwest Washington to dedicate a flag to White Palmer’s father.

“It looks like it’s snowing in the middle of September,” said Greg Palmer, glancing at the hundreds of thousands of flags covering the mall.

For more than 20 years, White Palmer has accompanied her patients at their bedside as they leave this world. After their death, she would give them a final bath and carefully wrap their bodies in a clean cloth. Throughout her nursing career, she has made this a ritual to honor those under her care.

She always thought she would do that for her parents, but last year the pandemic ripped that away.

Her father, Arthur Leon White, 80, called “Red” by his closest family members, was mistakenly diagnosed and treated for pneumonia in June last year. He died of covid alone in a hospital in Las Vegas, three days later, on June 20, 2020.

“This disease took that privilege for me, that honor to wash my father’s body,” White Palmer said. “It was horrific.”

The coronavirus pandemic denied White Palmer and hundreds of thousands of families a chance to properly say goodbye to their loved ones, to see them go.

The public installation has summoned thousands of Americans seeking a place of solace, to return dignity to people who have been reduced to numbers, Firstenberg said.

“Families want their loved ones to be seen and recognized,” said Sarah Wagner, an anthropology professor at George Washington University.

That is the case for Jennifer Heissenbuttel, a New York intensive care unit nurse who lost her sister last summer. AshLee DeMarinis, 34, was a special-education teacher at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, Mo.

She fought for her life for three weeks in a hospital and didn’t make it, Heissenbuttel said.

To honor her sister, Heissenbuttel started a scholarship for middle-schoolers in her name, organized a commemorative march with her neighbors, and drove from New York to the Mall because she doesn’t want her sister to be forgotten, she said.

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Those unable to visit the memorial in person can request that a message to their loved ones be written on a flag and planted for them. Dozens of volunteers then manually transcribe the digital submissions. They chose to do it that way to maintain the human connection in the process, Wagner said.

Wagner and a group of undergraduate students volunteer their time to geotag and photograph the flags so mourners can find them digitally on the installation platform. After Sunday, all of the flags will be preserved and archived, some of them for display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“This is a way to give back and help so many people who can’t come,” said Catalina Campos, a volunteer and an international affairs undergraduate student at GWU. The phone Campos carries with her stores photos of objects people leave for their loved ones: a red rose, a little heart-shaped rock, a wallet photo.

As coronavirus’s death tally climbs ever higher, more sections have to be added. Just a week ago, covid-19 surpassed the 1918 flu as the deadliest pandemic in the United States.

The public memorialization of the lives lost during the pandemic has shown people that they are not alone in their pain, Firstenberg said.

“People can bring their grief here. It’s a safe space,” she said.


A previous version of this article provided the wrong date for the end of the “In America: Remember” installation. It ends Sunday. The article has been corrected.