'All of us grieve together': Democratic leaders memorialize the COVID dead

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'In America: Remember' honors the 676,000 Americans who've died of COVID-19 with a public art installation on the National Mall.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders on Tuesday commemorated the more than 676,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 in a ceremony at a public art instillation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Flanked by a sea of white flags, each representing an American who died after contracting the virus, Pelosi noted that "nothing could be as eloquent a manifestation of sadness than art." She was joined by Reps. Jim Himes of Connecticut, Paul Tonko of New York, Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, and Mark Takano of California, who said they were there on behalf of the rest of the Democratic caucus. No Congressional Republicans were in attendance, organizers said, though it was unclear if any were invited.

"All of us grieve together, are inspired together, and renew our pledge to remember," Pelosi said. "And in remembering, to make sure that the number doesn't grow."

The memorial by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, titled In America: Remember, was officially opened on Sept. 17 and will remain on 20 acres of the National Mall through Oct. 3.

"As you look across this expanse, it's beautiful," Firstenberg said, kicking off the remembrance. "That causes immense dissonance, because how in the world could something so beautiful be tragic? But it is. This is our current American tragedy."

When the memorial was first installed, 673,484 flags were planted in honor of the COVID dead, marking the largest participatory art installation on the Mall since the AIDS Quilt was last displayed there in 1996. By the time the lawmakers were in attendance on Sept. 21, that number had grown to at least 676,286. With approximately 1,900 new COVID fatalities per day, the removable panels on the large sign marking the death toll stood as a dark reminder that the figure was sure to be updated again soon.

The memorial and remembrance ceremony come as the coronavirus pandemic has officially earned the title of most deadly viral outbreak in modern American history, surpassing the estimated number of fatalities from the 1918 influenza pandemic. "That's a tragic record to break," Pelosi said, "and it isn't over yet."

The memorial on the Mall marks the second COVID commemoration for Firstenberg, whose previous public works have focused on creating empathy for those dealing with drug addiction. During the fall of 2020, her installation "In America: How Could This Happen" utilized similar white flags outside RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., to memorialize the COVID dead, which at that point totaled just over 267,000 people. That memorial concluded on Nov. 30, 2020, when they ran out of space for additional flags due to the mounting death toll, organizers said.

This latest installation encourages participants to write the names of those who have died, as well as messages of dedication, on the flags before they're planted, also offering an online portal for people nationwide to participate in the memorial.

Speaking at Tuesday's ceremony, Firstenberg recalled a recent conversation she had with a man wandering deep into one of the 142 sections of flags. The man's son, a veteran of the Afghanistan War, was buried at Arlington National Ceremony, he told her. Though the man had tears in his eyes, Firstenberg said he was crying not for his dead son but for his living one — who lives in Florida and has chosen to remain unvaccinated.

"I'm so worried that that son is going to have a flag fly for him," Firstenberg said the man told her.

After the remarks, Pelosi and the other members of Congress moved deeper into the rows of flags, pausing to read some of the dedications on them.

Elsewhere, others who had watched the ceremony moved to small tables to write their own dedications on flags to plant for loved ones who had died. Volunteers had come armed with thousands of additional flags and Sharpie pens in preparation for the remembrances to come.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.