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COVID, Commemoration, and Cultural Memory

COVID-19 Memorial for 400,000 US Deaths, 19 January 2021
Fig. 1. COVID-19 Memorial for 400,000 US Deaths, January 19, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In a striking moment in Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address in January 2021, the new head of state asked the nation to join him “in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic.” This was, he told the millions watching worldwide, his “first act as President.” It was a moment unprecedented in Inaugural Addresses. Biden, in both personally gracious and canny political terms, recognized the need for a moment of collective mourning and remembrance, a small act of commemoration as a necessary part of moving forward as a nation. Although framed in religious language, this moment of silence was a gesture with roots in twentieth-century commemorative practice: a legacy of the First World War, the Two Minutes’ Silence is one of the most successful and enduring commemorative acts in the UK. Biden’s choice to include this commemorative moment gave us an indication of how this administration will address the memorial needs of the current era, and the language and forms they might use. Mourning and commemorating, Biden asserted, is a necessary part of the current national project.

Like the First World War and the influenza pandemic in its wake, the COVID pandemic has been a turning point in the history of death. Freud noted in March 1915, eight months into the Great War, that “we cannot maintain our former attitude towards death, and have not yet discovered a new one.”[1] His was a common sentiment: that the ongoing war was fundamentally changing the ways that people thought about death. Pearl James argues for a similar sense of the “New Death” in the American context, suggesting “people were preoccupied with death as never before,” not just in its volume but its mode of killing.[2] The month before the sudden death of his pregnant daughter Sophie from flu in January 1920, Freud wrote to his friend Ernest Jones, “Can you remember a time so full of death as this present one?”[3] In our own era, Zadie Smith devotes one of her essays written during the first wave of COVID to a similar sentiment: “What we were completely missing [in the pre-pandemic era] . . . was the concept of death itself, death absolute. The kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position.” In its exposure of American inequalities of healthcare coverage and income, Smith argues, “Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscure and denied, but now everybody can see it.” There is evidence that grief over COVID deaths can be particularly severe. It is clear that we are collectively witnessing a change in human experience, of a magnitude so large that we are only beginning to understand its implications.

Calls to Remember

After months of calls to remember and publicly grieve, calls led often by individual mourners and bereavement charities, heads of state have begun to address the need to commemorate in official terms. Often this has been prompted by milestones: in January the US Presidential Inauguration offered a moment of national coming together; in Britain the same month, the 100,000-death milestone prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make a formal apology. Biden’s moment of silence was an afterword to the Memorial Service held the evening before the Inauguration: the first nationwide recognition of loss since the pandemic began. The 400 lights around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool representing the then 400,000 dead provided a visual spectacle on a national scale, whilst cities around the United States were asked to make their own commemorative gestures (predominantly through light and sound) in the National Moment of Unity and Remembrance. The Empire State Building pulsed its red heartbeat as other landmarks across the country were lit up, and church bells were rung by mourners. In late February Biden repeated his moment of silence to mark 500,000 deaths in the US, with five hundred candles outside the White House and flags on all federal properties lowered to half-mast.

In the past year in Britain and the United States—my key frames of reference here—we have seen grassroots memorials on various levels: from Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s In America How Could This Happen . . . , with 200,000 white flags planted to represent victims on the DC Armory Parade Ground, to the handmade red roses sent in by mourners in Los Angeles in a piece of commemorative art entitled Rose Red Memorial designed by Marcos Lutyens and Tilly Hinton, reminiscent of the enormously popular poppies that marked the First World War centenary at the Tower of London. In Britain on the first anniversary of the UK lockdown in March, the end-of-life charity Marie Curie organised a National Day of Reflection (a day the organizers now plan to make an annual event alongside a permanent memorial), which included a moment’s silence at noon, a national doorstep vigil and the lighting up of prominent buildings and ringing of church bells. (Although the charity’s patron Prince Charles gave a speech, Boris Johnson observed the moment’s silence in private.) In March members of the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK began the National COVID Memorial Wall, on which a red heart represents each person who has died of COVID. Although not explicitly political, the memorial highlights the group’s push for an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, and its position opposite the Houses of Parliament adds to this. What links these varied commemorations is their attempts to illustrate the enormous number of deaths and to individualize them whilst the pandemic is still ongoing.

Echoes of the Great War

In these memorial gestures—both unofficial and official—organizers and participants are mobilizing languages of remembrance that developed across the course of the twentieth century and continue to develop in the twenty-first.[4] Having written a book on modernism and the First World War, I have been struck by how this unofficial memorialization has leaned on tropes and rhetoric developed in the Great War. Although the situations of the First World War and the COVID pandemic are clearly not analogous, references to medical personnel working “on the front lines” and as “first-hand witnesses” reminds me of similar language from the war, where nurses were positioned as both healers and grievers, as well as participants and witnesses—eventually producing memoirs with titles such as I Saw Them Die.[5] The pietà image for COVID medical workers which appeared on the wall of a hospital in Bergamo, Italy in March 2020 is an uncanny echo of A. E. Foringer’s 1917 nursing recruitment poster, “The Greatest Mother in the World”—imagery that I never expected we would see repeated a century later. Projects such as the New York Times “Those We’ve Lost” project, “designed to put names and faces to the numbers,” recall the Roll of Honour films shown in home front cinemas during the First World War: popular when they were introduced but removed when the numbers of the dead became too large.

A. E. Foringer, “The Greatest Mother in the World” (1917)
Fig. 2. A. E. Foringer, “The Greatest Mother in the World” (1917). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The grassroots memorials and local commemorations are not far removed from the street shrines that appeared during the First World War, or the calls from civilians for small local memorials that resulted in most towns in the UK and many in the United States having their own personalized sites of grief. We shouldn’t be surprised by the similarities between our own time and the First World War, because these experiences are marked by the intense need to remember and memorialize the dead in the wake of disrupted mourning rituals. Like our civilian forebears, we cannot be present at deathbeds or touch the dying and funerals and other mourning rituals are impossible or dramatically reduced.

The attempts to both quantify and to individualize the dead of this pandemic are in stark contrast to the influenza pandemic of a century ago, where, despite the wave of mass public memorialization following the end of the First World War, commemoration of the estimated 100 million flu dead was subsumed almost completely and anonymously into the memorialization of the war dead.”[6] The 1918 flu epidemic remains relegated to a footnote in the larger social and cultural history of death, or at least it was until its centenary in 2018 and the COVID pandemic made it relevant again. There are a number of reasons for this cultural forgetting, primarily timing, censorship, and uneven patterns of loss.[7] In contrast to the intensely literary First World War which turned common soldiers into poets, the scant overt cultural legacy of the flu has also contributed to its lack of a strong place in cultural memory—the best known story about the epidemic, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” only appeared in 1939—although Elizabeth Outka’s recent book has demonstrated the ubiquitous, lurking presence of the flu in modernist literature and culture.[8]

How the Modernists Remembered

Perhaps the key reason, however, that the flu has largely disappeared from cultural memory is that it was never officially memorialized.[9] This is interesting because, as I argue in my book, the immediate postwar period from about 1919-23 was not only the era of “high modernism” but also what Samuel Hynes calls “monument-making.”[10] In Britain, this official memorialization was driven by a public need to remember the dead, very similar to our current moment. Unlike our current moment, however, this public commemoration had to be largely invented and was therefore marked by memorial innovation of various kinds. The enormous popularity of the temporary Cenotaph—the empty tomb designed by Edwin Lutyens and erected on Whitehall the day before Victory Day (or “Corpse-Day,” as Osbert Sitwell put it) in July 1919, led to the Cabinet agreeing to a permanent version.[11] The permanent Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V on the anniversary of the Armistice, at 11a.m. on 11 November 1920, followed by the Two Minutes’ Silence and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. An estimated 1.25 million people visited the new permanent Cenotaph over the following week, leaving flowers that reached three metres deep. Like Osbert Sitwell, many modernists were unsurprisingly not impressed by this patriotic sentiment. Woolf considered the Strand the night the Cenotaph was unveiled “such a lurid scene, like one in Hell. A soundless street; no traffic; but people marching. . . . A bright light in the Strand; women crying Remember the Glorious Dead, & holding out chrysanthemums . . . A ghastly procession of people in their sleep.”[12]

Arthur Crane, Unveiling of the Cenotaph and the Funeral of the Unknown Warrior, Armistice Day, 1920
Fig. 3. Arthur Crane, Unveiling of the Cenotaph and the Funeral of the Unknown Warrior, Armistice Day, 1920. © IWM (Q 14966).

Another commemorative innovation was the Unknown Warrior: the return of a single body to its homeland in an elaborate state funeral. Mourners were explicitly encouraged to identify the Unknown Warrior with their own loved one. Under the subheading “He Was All,” The Times on November 11, 1920 noted:

Cavalry, Infantry, Artillery, Engineers: he was all. . . . He who comes to-day was, and is, one and all of these. And he was more; for it was not only on land that he fought. But where he died at sea he lies too deep to be brought home, even by a nation’s longing. So—for it is understood that this coffin of his comes from France – when he died far off, in Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia, in Africa, or wherever the outermost wash of the Great War broke on the margins of the world, whether he lies in a grave scraped in the dry sand among sun-baked rocks or in the dark tangle of forest undergrowth. Everywhere it is he, the Unknown Dead, who marks the farthest outposts of the Empire that he saved.[13]

The meaning and success of this new memorial site rested on the necessity of imaginative imposition by others: this unspecified Warrior (rather than Soldier in order that he could come from any section of the armed forces) could be anyone’s son, lover, husband, brother, father. Just one example of thousands: one of the men involved in transporting the Unknown Warrior home sent a rosebud from one of the wreaths on the coffin to his nephew with a note:

Dear Nephew

In loving memory of your Dear Dad who arrived at Dover Nov 10th 1920 in the Destroyer “Verdun.”

Buried in Westminster Abbey Nov. 11th 1920.

The unknown Warrior.[14]

The British Unknown Warrior was the first of his kind, giving the British public a space and a place for their grief, as well as one metonymic state funeral to stand in for the millions of funerals that could not occur. The success of this new memorial gesture means that it was soon copied around the world—the American Unknown Soldier was interred in November 1921 in Arlington National Cemetery—and has been mobilized for the memorialization of multiple wars since, as well as remaining central to British and American commemorative and political practice. After his inauguration and its moment of silence, Biden went to pay his respects to the Unknown Soldier.

The Cenotaph and the Unknown Warrior were only one of a number of national government-led gestures of remembrance, including a number of public structures and rituals of remembrance: the Two Minutes’ Silence (begun in 1919) and the Poppy Appeal in Britain (begun in 1921), the construction of formalized cemeteries in the former war zones, and thousands of local memorials at home. These memorials and rituals—attempts to fix meaning, as Hynes suggests—were being erected and established whilst there was still an ongoing search for the missing and confirmation of the numbers killed, and whilst the negotiations for the terms of the postwar settlements were still underway.[15] Of course monument-making extended beyond stone and ritual. All of the arts saw the reworking of older and the development of new commemorative forms in the postwar period, a process which had begun during the war. In Commemorative Modernisms, I argue that modernist writing was always underwritten by the experience of mass death of the war: that the extent and nature of the enormous death toll of the war changed the way that death was represented in literature: what Katherine Mansfield referred to as “a change of heart,” in regard to Virginia Woolf’s 1919 novel Night and Day.[16] I argue that the unprecedented war losses and the subsequent cultures of both private memorialization and public commemoration are a crucial yet overlooked context for literary development in this period, and that much of the literature we know as modernist was commemorative in purpose.

Individualizing the Dead

The real innovation, however, was the equal treatment of the dead: in Judith Butler’s terms, the First World War established the grievability of all military personnel, not just those of high rank, and regardless of social class.[17] The war marked a new tradition of naming all of the dead, what Thomas Laqueur calls a “commemorative hyper-nominalism,” where “the state poured enormous human, financial, administrative, artistic, and diplomatic resources into preserving and remembering the names of individual common soldiers.”[18] This listing of names of both the dead and the missing was, Laqueur argues, “the great innovation of First World War commemoration,” which “produced the greatest assemblage of names in world history and probably also the greatest number of memorials” and in so doing “began an era” (The Work of the Dead, 425, 448). Although “genuinely new” with their named, individual graves, war cemeteries were simultaneously shocking in their democratic uniformity (“Memory and Naming,” 155). All bodies were buried with an identical plain Portland limestone headstone, with a religious emblem and any military decorations noted. The only element of personalization was a sixty-six-character inscription (with a fee per character), which had to be approved by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission.[19] The project Epitaphs of the Great War poignantly demonstrates the creativity mourners showed with these inscriptions.

A more personalized version of the official monuments and memorials were the Memorial Plaques that women and next-of-kin in Britain and across the Empire who had lost a loved one received, demonstrating state recognition of their loss. The Memorial Plaque, or Dead Man’s Penny as it became known, asserted what Hynes refers to as the “Big Words”—“He died for freedom and honour”—and arrived with a memorial scroll bearing the deceased’s name and a consolatory letter from the King (A War Imagined, 270). About 1.3 million of these plaques were issued for male veterans, and six hundred for female participants, from 1919 until well into the 1930s as veterans died from wounds sustained in the war. When one of the six hundred issued to female victims came up for auction last summer (identical to the male plaques, with only the modified phrase ‘She died for freedom and honour’), it was cannily marketed as “Extremely Rare Spanish Flu Memorial Plaque” as the plaque was dedicated to a nurse who had died of flu. It was, in fact, a normal WWI memorial. This example demonstrates how the flu victims were subsumed into the broader rhetoric of military sacrifice and honor, and illustrates another reason why it was difficult to memorialize the flu dead: the narrative of contamination and the resultant “dirty death,” which turned its victims blue and produced haemorrhages from mucus membranes, was not easily converted into a rhetoric of heroism and self-sacrifice. It was simply easier to make these flu victims war heroes instead.

Memorial Forms

The memorial project of our own era will be very different from that of our modernist counterparts. This opinion may be contentious—others have suggested that the very fact this is a pandemic means that it will not make us reconsider death or memorial practices. (One friend told me, “What is left of the AIDS epidemic? A quilt.” My friend isn’t totally right— the New York City Aids Memorial was opened in 2016—but it is certainly more difficult conceptually to memorialize illnesses than wars, where narratives of heroism, patriotism and nationhood can be easily invoked.) However, the Great War established a number of precedents for post-war memorialization, including constructing national and local memorials, developing annual traditions and rituals, recording the names of all deaths as far as possible, and commemorating in increasingly secularized modes. Over the past century that post-war memorial model has been extended to encompass new conflicts and tragedies, and the urge towards memorialization has become not only necessary but expected as an act of closure. Considering “an arc of memorial forms,” James E. Young suggests how “post–World War I and II memorials [have] evolved along a discernible path, all with visual and conceptual echoes of their predecessors.”[20]

Although some critics, such as David Rieff, have argued in general terms that this memory-making is not actually useful, a recent LSE report argued that commemoration is not only necessary for grief management, but also for social cohesion in the post-pandemic era.[21] Although this trend towards memorialization has not been a continually upward curve across the last one hundred years—in Britain, for example, many Second World War memorials were simply added onto existing First World War memorials—there’s never been a more public culture of war memory, and memory wars, than our present moment, as I have written elsewhere. The contemporary monument, Young argues, “attempts to assign a singular architectonic form to unify disparate and competing memories” (The Stages of Memory, 15). As our conflicts over appropriate statues and monuments continue, we are continuing to learn how to memorialize contested and difficult histories.

Remembering and Writing COVID

In contrast to the 1918 flu pandemic, what we might expect to see in the next few years is an abundance of COVID commemoration—and this commemoration will help us to collectively grieve through recognizable tropes of remembrance. These tropes have been developed through some of the most prominent, and arguably most successful, memorials of the past century, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In line with some of these prominent examples, we might anticipate large-scale state investments in national memorials, selected through competitions: minimalist, abstract and predominantly secular memorial designs involving light elements, drawing on redemptive narratives of resilience, rather than the Big Words of earlier war propaganda and commemoration. The only large-scale memorial plan proposed so far, the World Memorial to the Pandemic designed by the architecture firm Gómez Platero, a 131-foot circular disk with a hole at its center for an as yet unchosen waterfront location in Uruguay, fits this grand, humanistic model. Because of the global nature of this pandemic, we may see more transnational memorials, such as the Ring of Remembrance, an International War Memorial in Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, France, erected in 2014. Perhaps the biggest change will be the incorporation of new technology, with many memorials either being fully digital (such as this one in the New York City subway) or incorporating digital and interactive components (such as this memorial for Hispanic victims of COVID in Austin, Texas, which becomes animated when viewed through an app).

It is unlikely these memorials will be figurative or depict one representative figure like the Unknown Warrior: who could represent a COVID victim, when this disease attacks all? The sheer numbers may also make the naming of all victims on official memorials impossible, though accompanying online memorials might enable people to name loved ones who have died. Given our awareness of the contribution of frontline workers, it’s probable there will be memorials for particular groups, such as nurses, doctors and medical workers, as well as memorials for communities that the virus has disproportionately affected. It’s not yet clear yet which deaths are grievable as COVID deaths (a highly fraught question, because the number has been politicized), a discussion reminiscent of which deaths counted as war deaths during the First World War. The National COVID Memorial Wall represents those whose death certificate mentions COVID-19. What about those deaths that were hastened either due to underlying medical conditions or undiagnosed COVID? Do my uncle and my grandma, who both passed away as a result of the emotional and physical pressures of lockdown, count as COVID victims? Despite the underlying cause of death, it is clear that mourners experience a similar disruption of normal mourning rituals in their bereavement as those grieving COVID victims, due to social distancing, hospital and funeral regulations. Notably, the National Day of Remembrance in the UK was to remember and grieve lives lost to all causes during the pandemic.

As a literature scholar, I’m wondering what different mode of writing this pandemic will produce. Will there be an acceleration in literary development, as there was with the First World War and modernist experimentation? Will there be an annus mirabilis, like the “War Books Boom” of 1928, when COVID memoirs become a publishers’ windfall? I’ve been very aware in writing this piece that, like Freud writing of the war in early 1915, we are “ourselves too near to focus the mighty transformations which have already taken place or are beginning to take place” to be able to see it with any clarity (“Thoughts for the Times,” 288). Beyond the memorials and commemorative rituals I’ve outlined here, literature can help us to grieve. As Hynes notes, writing of First World War combatant narratives, “[y]ou participate vicariously in Robert Graves’s war when you read Goodbye to all that; you don’t experience a cemetery that way.” He concludes that “[a]ll these kinds of war-narratives—the letters, the diaries, the memoirs—are acts of commemoration.”[22] In our own era, our literature going forward may seek to meet the same need.


[1] Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” [1915], in Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers, Volume 4, trans. under supervision of Joan Riviere (New York: Basic Books, 1959), 307–08.

[2] Pearl James, The New Death: American Modernism and World War I (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 1.

[3] Quoted in Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for our Time [1988] (London: Papermac, 1989), 390.

[4] Here I draw on Jay Winter’s terminology. See War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). I am very grateful to Jay for his insightful comments on a draft of this piece.

[5] Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections of Shirley Millard, ed. Adele Comandini (London: George G. Harrap, 1936).

[6] Laura Spinney notes that the three global waves of the influenza epidemic from January 1918 to March 1920 “infected one in three people on earth” and resulted in the deaths of “50–100 million people, or between 2.5 and 5 per cent of the global population—a range that reflects the uncertainty that still surrounds it,” in Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 76.

[7] The first reason for the lack of cultural memory of the flu was timing: the epidemic came in the final year of the war, when an exhausted public had become so accustomed to hearing about deaths of young men in combat that these new flu deaths lacked the shock element they would have provoked in peacetime. Secondly, it was difficult to assess the size and scale of the epidemic, because wartime censorship prevented it being reported. (The lack of censorship on reportage in neutral Spain is the reason it became known as the “Spanish Flu.”) Thirdly, although flu killed more people than the war worldwide, this wasn’t the case in Europe, where flu deaths, reported alongside war deaths, must have seemed like just another type of wartime loss: the historian Pat Jalland argues that people “tended to blame the war” for flu deaths (Death in War and Peace: Loss and Grief in England, 1914–1970 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010], 33. Spinney notes that some even suggested that the flu was the result of “noxious vapours rising from the cadavers left behind on the killing fields” (Pale Rider, 75).

[8] Elizabeth Outka, Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020). See also her recent piece in this forum.

[9] The 1918 flu memorials we now have were erected recently: in 2018 a local restaurant owner paid out of his own pocket for a memorial bench that sits in a cemetery in Vermont, and in 2019, the New Zealand government put up a zinc plaque in a garden in Wellington, next to a war memorial.

[10] See Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture [1990] (London: Pimlico, 1992), 269–82.

[11] Osbert Sitwell, “Corpse-Day, July 19th, 1919,” in Wheels, 1919: Fourth Cycle, ed. Edith Sitwell (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1919), 9–11.

[12] Virginia Woolf, December 12, 1920, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1920-24 [1978], ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (London: Penguin, 1981), 79­–80.

[13] “Armistice Day, 1920,” The Times, November 11, 1920, 16.

[14] Dried rosebud and letter from W. Chandler, Imperial War Museum, ã EPH 3232.

[15] See Hynes, A War Imagined, 269–70.

[16] Katherine Mansfield, letter to J. M. Murry, [November 10, 1919], in The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume III, 1919–1920, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1993), 82.

[17] See Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010)

[18] Thomas Laqueur, “Memory and Naming in the Great War,” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, ed. John R. Gillis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 160, 155. Laqueur has more recently referred to hyper-nominalism as “necronominalism,” where “we record and gather the names of the dead in ways, and in places, and in numbers as never before,” in The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 366.

[19] The British government charged for this inscription, whereas the Australian and Canadian governments covered the cost. The New Zealand government didn’t allow personal inscriptions, under the principle that charging for them went against the principle of equality in death.

[20] James E. Young, The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 2.

[21] See David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memories and Its Ironies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

[22] Samuel Hynes, “Personal Narratives and Commemoration,” in, War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century, ed. Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 206, 209.