President Trump, whose administration downplayed potentially lifesaving early warnings about the virus, wants us to forget everything but the names of the victims as quickly as possible. By not dwelling on why people died, he hopes we will be able to get back to normal and watch our economy “BOOM, perhaps like never before.”
Rather than forgetting what happened, however, it is vital to remember not just the victims of covid-19 in the United States and around the world, but also the circumstances of their deaths. Journalists, social scientists and public health researchers are already taking the first steps to document this pandemic in real time, but the work of interpretation and meaning-making will continue for years, if not decades, to come. Memorials to covid-19 victims should be part of this process. If done properly, these memorials will honor victims, teach us about why they died (and whether their deaths could have been prevented), but perhaps most importantly, impart what we learned during this pandemic.
Memorials are typically thought of as sites of contemplation and healing that are created after a catastrophic event. They are seen as end points and places of closure. They are this, but they also more: They serve as a forum for ongoing debate over the causes, long-term effects and meanings of a disaster. At their best, they also allow communities to engage in the long-term process of mending social ruptures, attending to survivors and families of victims and coming to terms with social failures. Memorials, like funerals and other death-related rituals, are more about the needs of the living than the dead.
Foreclosing memorialization contributes to historical amnesia, an insidious forgetfulness that delays a reckoning with injustice. Consider racism in America. Only in the past few years, at sites like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Birmingham, Ala., in 2018, and the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans, which opened in 2014, have victims of American slavery and Jim Crow era violence begun to receive their long-deferred memorials.
Deciding what memorials look like and whose names to include can prove difficult. Sometimes this is due to the nature of the event/tragedy itself — tens of thousands of victims of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were either incinerated in the bombing or cremated before being identified. The storage of unidentified body fragments in the medical examiner’s facility behind a wall of the underground September 11 Museum still provokes anger from many families, despite the names being listed on the memorial above ground. In many cases, including the Oklahoma City Bombing and the September 11 Memorial in New York City, determining whom to include and in what order to list the names provoked heated arguments.
Memorial designs, too, provoke controversy that can reveal the uglier side of politics. Paul and Milena Murdoch’s original “Crescent of Embrace” design for the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pa., elicited criticism, for example, from a vocal minority who saw in it a symbol of Islam. These critics were wrong, but their voices revealed how anti-Muslim attitudes surfaced during the memorialization debate.
Memorials also tell the story of the events that led to deaths, and this too can provoke controversy. A narrative can tell us whether the victims sacrificed their lives, were sacrificed by an uncaring, negligent government or possibly both. The need to tell stories often leads to intense debates about the politicization of “public deaths” — i.e., deaths that take on meanings and grief beyond just the deceased’s immediate circle of family and friends.
Increased contentiousness about how to remember such deaths has led to the emergence of the memorial museum in the post-Cold War era. These institutions seek not only to commemorate victims of disaster and atrocity to promote healing, but also to educate future generations so they can avoid a similar fate. Despite efforts to avoid politics, the complex social and political contexts in which memorial museums are planned and constructed invite controversy.
Indeed, when the memorial to the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks became too closely linked to the museum being planned at the site, many family members complained their loved ones were being politicized or used to attract tourists to pay for entry to the privately run museum.
In the debates about the 9/11 memorial and museum, designers had to decide how to portray the victims — were the people who died in the twin towers heroes of a war, innocent victims of senseless terrorist violence or collateral damage from a response to decades of militant, oil-soaked American foreign policy in the Middle East? Some argued in those bellicose years that yes, they died in the first battle of a “war on terror,” a way of framing the event as part of a longer war. But over time this logic has worn thin, and more and more we see them as people who went to work and didn’t come home; they weren’t warriors, and yet their names are still engraved, next to the firefighters and the police who also died that day.
New disaster research challenges the idea that a disaster is a single event with a clear ending point — we now see disasters as slow, unreeling over decades and generations. For example, historian Edward Linenthal’s concept of the “unfinished” 1995 Oklahoma City bombing suggests memorialization is part of a long-term disaster recovery process. Disaster researchers now view PTSD, lingering health effects and victim long-term compensation as factors we must attend to in order to collectively heal. Memorials at their best can be sites for ongoing research, the collection of oral histories, gathering visitor responses, the donation of artifacts, archiving legal proceedings and the maintenance of health registries.
Past debates about memorials may guide us as we consider what forms of memorialization will be appropriate to mark a global pandemic, affecting people differently in every corner of the globe. Who will we be memorializing, and why? Will we be memorializing the victims themselves, the nature of the threat or the global response to it? Will we want to memorialize the dead precisely because many of them may have lived had governmental responses been swifter and more competent? Is it proper for a U.S. memorial to include the names of the victims in Italy, Spain or China?
Memorialization efforts will have to grapple with questions like government inaction during the early stages of the disease, and how to include sacrifices made by ordinary people — health-care workers, grocery store clerks and those who stayed home to “flatten the curve.”
They will also have to explain what makes the victims of covid-19 more worthy of memorialization than the people who have died during this period by other, unrelated causes. One clue might lie in the unique nature of death in the time of covid-19, in which large numbers of victims died in the isolation of their homes or in ICUs without loved ones present, and the families, in turn were not able to gather together to mourn their loss.
Because the covid-19 pandemic is not going to end soon, and because its ending point is uncertain, we need to start a memorialization process now. We can’t wait for august juries to award architectural prizes, or for some ephemeral final count of the dead or even a count of the survivors. In this sense we might look to the Berlin Stolpersteine, the AIDS Quilt or the oral history project of the Flight 93 Memorial as examples to work with — inclusive, living, open-ended, activist — consoling the living and marking the dead, while also providing spaces for debate over pasts that didn’t have to be that way, and futures that remain possible.