LONDON – Piece by piece, the Covid-19 sanctuary was born on a hilltop in the town of Bedworth in central England. The process was meant to be a metaphor for a human life. Like bones fused together over time, it grew taller as the memorial’s creators spent months joining intricate pieces of wood into a skeletal structure that eventually stood on its own, 65 feet tall.
Then they burned everything down.
There have always been monuments to commemorate the loss of human life from catastrophic events, such as the thousands of memorials dedicated to world wars, the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust.
But the Covid-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has presented a unique challenge for grieving families. It is not a single incident, in one place. As the death toll of more than six million worldwide continues to rise, communities and families are trying to keep up, building memorials as the tragedy continues unfolds, the end is not yet written.
New monuments are being installed. Old projects are expanded. Photographs and biographies of Covid-19 victims in Malaysia and South Africa are updated online. Rural and urban landscapes are transformed by remembrance, from a waist-high structure in Rajannapet, India, to spinning wheels attached to a walkway in São Paulo, Brazil.
Names are painted on a wall along the River Thames in London and on stones arranged in hearts on a farm in New Jersey. Thousands of fluttering flags were planted at the Rhode Island State House. Ribbons are tied to a church fence in South Africa.
“People died alone in hospitals, or their loved ones couldn’t even see them or hold their hands, so maybe some of these memorials have to do with a better send off,” said Erika Doss, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies how Americans spend memorials.
“We really need to remember, and we need to do it now,” Dr. Doss said. “Covid is not over. These are slightly strange memorials in that names are added. They are a bit fluid. They are timeless.”
It is not easy for the builders of these memorials to capture death. It is elusive and vast, like the airborne virus that claimed life and left the question of how to make a physical manifestation out of a void.
For the builders of the shrine in Bedworth, a former coal mining town, the answer was to turn away from their shared artistry of nearly 1,000 carvings of pine and birch arches, spiers and cornices, and reduce it to ashes at sunset on May 28.
What the moment needed, one organizer said, was an event of catharsis and rebirth, where people who had seen the shrine standing can now go back and see it gone.
“It will still be there in their minds,” said Helen Marriage, a producer on the project. “Feel the emptiness, which is the same way you feel with this dead, beloved person.”
Wall of Hearts
More than a year after it started, new names are still being added to the thousands scrawled on hearts painted on a wall along the River Thames in London.
A walk along the almost half kilometer stretch shows how death gutted generations and left few lands untouched. Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and Urdu are among the languages in messages to “Grandpa”, “Mum”, “Dad”, “Nana”.
Uncle Joshua. My brother. My first friend.
Their authors tried to understand death. “Angel wings gained too soon” was how someone described Sandra Otter’s death on January 30, 2021. “Keep on Rocking” was the message to Big Pete.
The virus claimed neighbors, comedians and drinking buddies, their stories told in marker on the wall. Dr. Sanjay Wadhawan “gave his life to save others.” Cookie is “still remembered at the post office.” To all London “cabbies, RIP.”
Some tried to understand loss. Angela Powell was “not just a number.” One person wrote: “This was murder,” and another said: “They let them all down.” A woman named Sonia addressed Jemal Hussein: “Sorry you died alone.”
The wall’s founders were citizens and activists, who began painting the empty hearts last year towards the end of one of Britain’s lockdowns to represent the more than 150,000 people who had Covid-19 on their death certificates in Britain.
Soon the hearts had countless names.
“We have no control over it,” said Fran Hall, a volunteer who regularly paints new hearts and covers up any offensive graffiti that appears.
“We can paint a section and people add hearts further down,” she said. “It still happens. It’s really organic.”
Dacia Viejo-Rose, who researches the community’s use of memorials at the University of Cambridge, said “coming out” of grief over Covid-19 was compelling because so many suffered in isolation.
“It became so much about what are the statistics of people dying that we lost track of individual suffering,” she said. “We lost track of the individual stories.”
People who are grieving will often seek comfort from an unrelated memorial, she said.
One day in June, Du Chen, a student from China studying at Manchester University, knelt to write in Mandarin on one of the painted hearts in London, to “wish everyone well.”
“People remember not only the people they have lost, but also the way of life before the pandemic,” he said.
A family of tourists from Spain stopped and said their people were suffering too. Alba Prego, 10, ran her fingers along photographs attached to a heart mourning a California man, Gerald Leon Washington, who died at age 72 in March.
“The people who wrote it loved him very much,” she said.
Around her, unmarked hearts waited for new names.
As the death toll rises, there will be more.
Space is also found in memory on a fence at St. James Presbyterian Church in Bedfordview, a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg. In early 2020, caretakers began tying white satin ribbons on the fence for people who died of Covid-19.
By June 25, 2020, about three months after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, they tied the knot for the 2,205th time. In December, there were 23,827.
In January 2021, the month with the highest average deaths in South Africa, the church said it would tie one ribbon for every 10 people who died.
More than 102,000 people have died from Covid-19 in South Africa, although the rate has slowed, the latest figures show. By early July, the fence had 46,200 ribbons tied to it, Reverend Gavin Lock said.
Families “suffered great trauma by not being able to visit their loved ones in hospital, nor see the deceased, and in some cases not being able to follow normal rituals,” he said.
In Washington, DC, more than 700,000 white flags, one for each person lost to Covid, were planted on 20 acres of federal land. From September 17 to October 3, 2021, mourners walked through the rustling field, writing messages and names on the flags.
“I miss you every day, baby,” a woman whispered as she planted a flag, in a moment captured in a documentary published by The New York Times.
By May 12 this year, when the death toll in the United States reached one million, President Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-mast for four days at the White House and in public areas.
The white flags have continued to go up.
Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the artist behind the installation, “In America: Remember,” said a memorial with new flags was planned for New Mexico in October. In June, thousands were planted on the State House lawn in Providence, RI, to commemorate the 3,000 people who died of Covid-19 there.
“What we’re seeing is this push to deal with it at the state and local level, because no one sees it happening at the national level,” Firstenberg said.
“The plane is still crashing,” she said. “And it’s very hurtful for families not to somehow acknowledge that the pain is still there.”