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How Can The U.S. Memorialize The Pandemic Once It Ends?


How do we remember more than 500,000 people in this country who have died of COVID-19? Artists have already begun creating answers to that question. Poets, muralists and architects all have visions of what a COVID-19 memorial could be, what it should do.


TRACY K SMITH: It feels trite to say what we always say. Like, we will never forget. So I don't want to say that, but I want the remembering to get inside my skin.

SHAPIRO: The former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith wrote a poem for transit workers in New York who died of the disease, and I asked her to read it for us.

SMITH: (Reading) Travels far. What you gave - brief tokens of regard, soft words uttered, barely heard, the smile glimpsed from a passing car through stations and years, through the veined chambers of a stranger's heart - what you gave travels far.


SHAPIRO: That was a very specific memorial to transit workers in one city who died of the coronavirus. And so I asked Tracy K. Smith what qualities she wants to see in a pandemic memorial that has a broader mission. And she told me it needs to invite people to bridge a divide, to answer a question, complete a sentence.

SMITH: It feels good to me to look at something like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and realize that there's a lot that I must fill in in order to activate this memorial. There's nothing telling me, well, these are the three stages that you need to go through to arrive at this conclusion that we think is effective. And the fact of lingering in uncertainty of dealing with possible feelings and deciding, well, is this the one I need to kind of invest in? - all of that work leads me to a place that feels indelible in a way more so than it might if I was just looking at a foregone conclusion that somebody else is presenting for me to accept.

SHAPIRO: If you imagine 10 or 20 years from now that you visit this memorial, what do you hope that experience provides you?

SMITH: I hope there's something in - I want to say every major city that's been touched by this, which is every major city, that brings a sense of local specificity. I want Minneapolis to have a COVID memorial that includes George Floyd. I want Washington, D.C., to have one that includes the forms of injustice that peaceful protesters during the summer of 2020 also endured. All of this is part of what I think is a single overarching epidemic that America has been dealing with from its inception, which has to do with maybe disregard. That's one very, like, concise way of putting it. It has to do with the sense that some people are expendable.


SHAPIRO: Many of the ideas artists are exploring do more than just honor those we've lost to the pandemic. They also address the conditions in society that brought us here.


PAUL FARBER: People are really trying to just find a pathway to collective memory. I'm Paul Farber. I'm the director of Monument Lab. We're a public art and history studio looking at the past, present and future of monuments.

SHAPIRO: Paul Farber's organization works with cities and states that want to build new monuments, and he told me he's not hearing a lot of that talk from civic leaders just yet. What he does hear comes from artists leading the way. In Philadelphia, where he lives, Monument Lab worked with local artists over the summer to create a video projection series called "Cleanse." It projected photographs, video, poetry and more along a wall.

FARBER: And then a number of messages put on a monumental-sized face mask projected that included phrases like, memorialize the missing among us, it didn't have to be this way, and, finding the light within us.

SHAPIRO: So when I asked Paul Farber what he wants to experience when he visits a coronavirus memorial one day years from now, he said, of course, it should create a space to mourn. But he wants more than just a monument to loss.

FARBER: I also want to know about, in this memorial, how everyday people kicked into acts of care and make that part of the story as well. And then finally, I want to understand how it will live into the future - you know, that it will be a bridge, that it will allow us to understand and mark those who we have lost but also give us a pathway for lessons learned that can be formed into new pathways for healing.


SHAPIRO: So Paul Farber's checklist includes a collective experience, something that evolves over time and serves as a bridge to understanding. Those bullet points all describe one of the most powerful memorials in recent American history, an art project that grew out of another pandemic that's killed some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Mike Smith is the co-founder of the AIDS Quilt, a vast patchwork of more than 50,000 brightly colored panels made by people to remember loved ones who died in the AIDS crisis. At one point, it covered the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

MIKE SMITH: When you say the word quilt, you think of your grandmother tucking you in at night and Western community women coming together to work on a blanket for a new family that had just arrived - I mean, that sort of thing. It's a real metaphor for warmth in America. And that certainly wasn't the way anybody was responding to AIDS at that point.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that I find so moving about the quilt is that, unlike a monument in concrete and marble, the quilt is not designed by any one person. It's a collective creation. Can you speak to the importance of that?

SMITH: Well, I think it was certainly important to us at the time. We needed that multitude of voices. Each panel may represent a life, but it really represents the relationship between that person and the person or group making it. And we wanted to tell those stories. You know, we needed a way to make it more about storytelling and less about history-writing.

SHAPIRO: And do you think that's relevant to the way we think about memorializing those who've died of COVID-19 as well?

SMITH: I would like to hope that - similar to what the quilt did, that whatever memorial there is for COVID inspires communities to come together and to not isolate. The nature of COVID - the devastating nature of COVID is this isolation. The shutdowns, the gradual reopenings, the shutdowns again, people disappearing into hospitals and never coming back out - I mean, there's this tremendous amount of loneliness and invisibility related to COVID. And I would hope that some memorial kind of teaches people that the next time around, we need to do this differently.

SHAPIRO: That isolation has also kept us from holding funerals and other collective mourning rituals, so one day these memorials might allow us to grieve together in a way that's not been possible since the pandemic began a year ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS SONG, "WOVEN SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.