In Memento Mori. How will we remember the dead from the Covid-19 Pandemic?
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague
The architecture firm Gómez Platero is leading a $1.5 million project to create a monument to the victims of COVID-19 — the world’s first large-scale memorial to those lost in a pandemic — on the shores of Montevideo, under the direction of Uruguay’s president, Luis Lacalle Pou.
This dynamic monument will take the form of a massive circular structure that is nearly 130 feet in diameter. The circular platform is expected to welcome up to 300 visitors at a time and contain an open void at its center, which will look down toward the ocean below. It is a worthy attempt to remember those who have died — a place to comtemplate those who have perished and the enormity of their loss for a family, for a country and for the world. A place also, to remind us all, of the connection between the power of Nature and the conditionality of Humanity. It is bordering on the sublime.
In London a memorial garden is planned for the city’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site will consist of 33 blossoming trees, one for each of the city’s boroughs. In a city of concrete and steel this natural monument of living — and growing — remembrance seems fitting. But it does seem rather inadequate to the task of a memorial that should remind us — and provoke us — into a much-needed acknowledgement, that human life is sacred. 33 trees just does not provide that. You can plant 33 trees anywhere and at anytime. This memorial must be different and it must be memorable.
For the whole purpose of a memorial is to act as a focus and container of memory. A memory of death. But this is completely untrue for the Spanish Flu in 1918 and for the 3 years it raged around the world killing millions. There were literally NO memorials. Only the graves of the dead were there for limited remembrance. Nothing large or state produced was ever mooted or created. Despite 50 million people worldwide dying from an influenza virus a century ago, the 1918 flu pandemic is barely remembered in statues and stone. And no works of art or literature. Maybe an odd oblique reference. But hardly a whisper. This seems bizarre and unnnatural.
There are many references to TB in works of art and in literature. Many artists of course directly suffered from TB and subsequently died from the illness. But here TB did not kill within weeks, it lingered for many years. Time enough for the illness to permeate the aristic output of the individual and of the zeitgeist. With the Spanish Flu death was fast and it was unstoppable. There was just no time for it to be turned into the stuff of personal artistic creation. Medicial science was in its modern infancy. There was nothing it could do to cure or even alleviate the suffering. It was impotent. Death was painful and inevitable. Progress was dealt a huge blow.
Yet even after it had gone the trauma created by the virus did not find its way into a mediated form of understanding and comprehension through the art and literature of the early 20th century. Whereas World War One did. It was as if the Spanish Flu epidemic and the millions of deaths were wiped from the memory of humanity. Only the memory of World War One would be allowed its memorials. For it is easier to remember those who have fallen in battle and easier to potray them as ‘glorious’ or ‘heroic’ than it is to remember people dying by suffocating in their own blood. It is far easier to remember those who have survived, and provide meaning, to the lives of those who have died in a War, than those who have died from a highly contagious disease. Where is the meaning in that? No Homeric glory here.
How do we give meaning to those who die from a deadly virus? How do we commemorate the loss of so many but not from a war or an atrocity? These are the questions we must ask ourselves.
The generation of The Spanish Flu did not have the benefit of hindsight or science. There only reference point would have been the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages. This was 400–500 years ago. Their science knew nothing — yet — of viral contagions and pathogens and the mutation of genetic material. We know that epidemics are now cyclic. They re-occur. The circular — but broken — shape of the platform in the monument in Uruguay perfectly symbolises this repeating pattern. Death from epidemics will be a repeating cycle but each new wave will have its own particular presence and its own particular devastating break in the normal cycle of life.
How will we remember each distinct pattern? How can we connect thse patterns to the dead? There is one disease calamity, however, that has been widely memorialized in recent generations in the U.S.: the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. There are several memorials around the country to victims of the virus; New York City even has two official commemorations situated only a few blocks away from each other in Manhattan.
But perhaps the most recognizable of them all is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, initially displayed on the National Mall in 1987 and covering a space larger than a football field, with 1,920 panels representing the dead. It is here that we can see and feel the pattern of that horrendous disease and the deaths of so many. But this memorial is not just a commemoration and a remembrance of death but a powerful statement of activism.
There has been in both Britain and America a response to the Covid-19 virus that was undoubtedly too slow and too limited in its initial response. This has continued throughout the last year and into this. However, in 2021 the vaccination programme in Britain has been a great success. Everything else has not.
This is why the memorial of 33 trees that is planned for London is far too straightforward and too simplistic. There is not the slightest hint of criticism about the British government’s response to the Pandemic in this memorial. Should there be? Well if we just take the London area more people of a BAME ethnic community contracted and died of Covid-19 as a percentage of population, than those in the white community. The AIDS memorial shows that a memento mori can be both respectful to the dead and make a political and social point about the inadequacy of the response to a deadly epidemic within a specific community and group.
It is not being disrespectful to the dead if those who have witnessed their terrible death, those from the same community and those who are very concerned that this is not repeated, asks questions of those in authority. It is our duty. It must be prevented from occurring again.
The AIDS memorial is also a most beautiful piece of commemorative art. I am sure we can do the same in London. But 33 trees is nowhere near enough. It is not a memento mori worthy of the dead. In fact it is an insult.
In Britain 125,000 have perished from Covid-19. We owe it to them to remember them and to do our best to create a lasting memorial that connects with the past and with the future. We need to connect with 1918 and the years of death that followed. To connect with the dead of the first deadly virus of the 20th century is necessary if we are to fully acknowledge how sacred life is and that the truth of the catastrophe is not completely lost.