How to honor the dead of COVID?


Should we honor the dead of COVID?

The current tally for the United States is 972,000 and climbing by 1,200 a day. At this rate, we will reach 1 million Americans dead from COVID-19 by mid-April.

Do we commemorate the dead? And if yes, how ?

Uncomfortable questions. Americans have a habit of celebrating those who die in war. They have their own day. (Sigh. It’s Remembrance Day.) And while some Americans visit graves, in general, the holidays are marked by ball games, explosive sales and potato salad.

Some countries have national moments of silence. I was in Israel on their Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, and at the appointed time, people stop driving and stand in front of their cars with their heads bowed for a two-minute moment of silence.

Silence is not a very American concept. We are more into physical monuments. My hometown had a statue to a Union soldier on a pedestal in its downtown triangle, a silent sentinel that I had never associated with someone dying until now. The World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, is a sprawl of low walls, stubby columns, and bubbling pools that I would struggle to imagine in my mind, and I was there. More of a fancy marble skatepark than a memorial.

The gold standard for war memorials is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a black granite gash in the ground with the names of the 58,000 American servicemen who died in this brutal and crushing war.

Should we try to do something similar for the millions of COVID victims of another conflict that divided our country? Hard to imagine. Perhaps there is an artist or an architect who can give meaningful shape to the plague years and shape public perceptions as Maya Lin did.

Maybe we won’t even try. The dead who did not die in the war are not retained. There is no Cancer Day, no significant monument to the 675,000 Americans who died of influenza during the 1918 pandemic.

Perhaps it is up to us to commemorate in our own way. I accidentally took part in such an event on Sunday, during a concert by the DePaul Community Chorus. I didn’t expect this to be related to the plague; I was there with my wife and youngest son because our good friend Ilene sings with the band.

The concert was to be given two years ago, inspired by conductor Stephen Blackwelder’s reflection on the role of death in society.

“I thought a lot about the fact that death had no power as a vital and necessary component of human life,” he said.

The program included three elegiac works – Henry Purcell’s 1695 “Funeral Music for Queen Mary”, a Beethoven piece from 1814, and then the program’s climax, Dan Forrest’s “Requiem for the Living”, composed in 2013.

The little talks that conductors give before the concert usually don’t talk about our political moment, but after “these two long and difficult years”, those of Blackwelder did.

We “seemed almost numb to dealing with death,” he said. “We’re all veterans of that now.”

He explained how the program, delayed by COVID, took on even greater relevance.

“We couldn’t have anticipated the depth of meaning this has for us now,” Blackwelder said.

I’m not particularly a fan of classical music composed in the last century. But Forrest’s Requiem was by turns pastoral and triumphant, “surprisingly beautiful and in some ways heartbreaking”, just as Blackwelder hoped.

Program notes are also not a place where you expect thought-provoking thought. But longtime choir member Reverend James J. Olson didn’t mince words when reflecting on the COVID years.

“I’m afraid we haven’t risen to the occasion as we might have hoped,” he wrote.

You mean all those arguments screaming in each other’s faces about mask mandates and vaccine requirements? Yeah, not our national shining moment. We are a country that could both quickly understand the complex science of a life-saving vaccine and also refuse to take it.

“Too many people remain cavalierly careless for their fellow human beings and in complete denial of the possibility of death – their own or that of a loved one,” Olson continued. “May this music strengthen our resolve and patience as this pandemic continues, to live not just for ourselves, but for others.”

Music can do that. I attended the concert to support a friend, but ended up being supported myself. That’s how life works. We should commemorate the one million COVID deaths, not for the benefit of the dead, which are beyond our reach, but for our own good. We are a wounded nation in need of healing.


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