paying respects

What America’s First Ad Hoc COVID Memorials Look Like

From white flags in D.C. to red felt roses in Los Angeles.

In Washington, D.C., artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg is planting a white flag for every COVID victim for the installation In America: How Could This Happen. Photo: Timothy Fadek
In Washington, D.C., artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg is planting a white flag for every COVID victim for the installation In America: How Could This Happen. Photo: Timothy Fadek

As of November 11, at least 241,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. It’s an almost impossible number to quantify: It’s the 9/11 attacks 78 times over, and it’s approaching the number of Americans killed in action during World War II. But even as thank-you signs, rainbows, and citywide claps have celebrated essential workers fighting the pandemic, “we don’t have any visual iconography or symbols for the people who are dying,” says Kristina Libby of the Floral Heart Project. There’s no COVID equivalent of the ghost bike, or a roadside shrine near the site of a car crash, and any kind of official memorial won’t come until long after a vaccine. Still, some people are working to create public memorials in cities across the country. Here, eight of their stories.

One of 20 floral wreaths made by artist Kristina Libby to honor coronavirus victims in New York City. Photo: Erica Reade Images @ericareadeimages/Floral Heart Project @lightvslight

New York: The Floral Heart Project

In May, the artist and Manhattanite Kristina Libby anonymously started placing heart-shaped flower wreaths in high-traffic areas around New York City. “When you think about other mass-trauma incidents, we are flooded with imagery: photos, flowers in the streets, visual reminders of what has been lost,” she says. “If we are not visualizing these people, we aren’t showing that their loss matters.” It’s up to nearly 20 installations, and she’s expanding the program to other cities through a partnership with 1-800-FLOWERS (each heart uses between 300 and 500 blooms). “These pieces aren’t political,” says Libby. “I don’t care about your political beliefs. I care about whether you’re grieving alone.”

Extra-large photos of COVID victims in Detroit lined the streets of Belle Isle Park in late August. Photo: Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Detroit: Drive-by Memorial

On August 31, the wide, leafy streets of Detroit’s Belle Isle Park were lined with billboard-size photos of the city’s coronavirus victims — 1,500 at the time — so relatives could drive by in tribute while a local radio station played gospel music and read the names of the deceased. “Detroit Memorial Day,” as the city-organized event was called, was only for the families of COVID victims, but residents, businesses, and churches across the city rang bells at 8:45 a.m. to show solidarity with those grieving.

Artist Shane Reilly is filling his yard with flags to honor COVID victims in Texas. Photo: Tamir Kalifa

Austin: A Flag for Every Texas Victim

Sculptor Shane Reilly began planting one flag in his Austin yard back in May for every Texan who died from the coronavirus. “I was constantly seeing people walking and socializing, without masks on, in my neighborhood,” he says. “Early in the pandemic, everyone was watching Tiger King and thinking this was a forced vacation. I wanted to reiterate that the pandemic was real and people were dying.” Nineteen thousand flags later, Reilly’s yard is now a site for commemoration and gratitude — but he is running out of space and is looking for a larger, permanent location for the memorial. “I’m at a tipping point here. We’re going to hit 20,000 soon.”

The Rose River Memorial project has added 186 red felt roses to a mural by the Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos in East Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of Rose River Memorial

Los Angeles: Rose River Memorial

Created to be a type of “casket for the nation,” the Rose River Memorial project is crowdsourcing a handmade red felt rose for every COVID death. The first public installation — a set of 186 roses tied onto fishing nets from the docks in San Pedro — was hung on a mural by the Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos in East Los Angeles. Co-founder Tilly Hinton says, “This installation is about making the enormity of COVID-19 something that we can see and a way to make a statement that this pandemic is decimating our country.” It’s on display at Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights until Thanksgiving, and the project’s website offers instructions for making the roses and rose-making kits available for purchase.

Some of the white flags in the Washington, D.C., memorial In America: How Could This Happen are inscribed with personalized messages honoring the dead. Photo: Timothy Fadek

Washington, D.C.: In America: How Could This Happen

Two installations appeared on the National Mall in September to mark the approaching 200,000th death: 20,000 white flags (organized by the COVID Memorial Project) and 20,000 empty black chairs (a tribute from COVID Survivors for Change). Now, Washington-based artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg is bringing a new array of white flags to the DC Armory Parade Ground. As in the Austin memorial, Firstenberg wants to plant a flag for every single victim, this time nationwide. While she acknowledges that the crisis is ongoing, “our collective grief can’t wait.” (Anyone who would like to honor a loved one can fill out this form, and the memorial team will post a personalized flag in your name.)

Marked by COVID, a group working on behalf of victims and survivors of the coronavirus pandemic, honored Arizona’s COVID victims at a Day of the Dead celebration in Phoenix. Photo: Meg Potter/The Republic via Imagn

Phoenix: Marked by COVID

The Rose Garden at the Arizona State Capitol was done up in candles and flowers on November 1, the Day of the Dead, this year. In addition to a traditional ofrenda, Kristin Urquiza of the nonprofit Marked by COVID displayed enlarged photos of 50 victims and 500 chairs, each bearing a lit tea candle, to represent the nearly 6,000 Arizonans who have died — one of whom was her father. “I needed a productive vessel to channel the emotions I was feeling,” she says. “I always knew losing a parent would be hard, but losing one to a pandemic and because of political negligence has been a whole other level of difficulty.” Unlike some COVID memorial-makers, Urquiza has turned to forthright advocacy, working toward a Biden presidency. “Mourning out loud, being vulnerable and present with one’s full self, is a political act” during a pandemic, she says. “Far too often, policy failure is hidden in private grief.”

Broken paper hearts memorialized COVID victims in Georgia in August. Photo: Audra Melton

Atlanta: Loved Ones, Not Numbers

In late August, Georgia Coalition 2 Save Lives constructed a wall of broken paper hearts outside the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta to represent the 5,300 victims in Georgia who had died up to that point. The installation was called Loved Ones, Not Numbers and was meant to honor the loss of lives while also pushing Governor Kemp to enforce a statewide mask mandate.

A traditional ofrenda in New Jersey had a particular focus for this year’s Day of the Day celebrations: honoring 500 migrants from Puebla, Mexico, who have died from COVID. Photo: Kevin Wexler/USA TODAY NETWORK

Passaic: Day of the Dead

Every year since 2012, Mi Casa es Puebla, a New Jersey center that supports migrants living in the U.S., erects elaborate altars to mark Día de Los Muertos. This year, the ofrenda had a particular focus: honoring 500 migrants from Puebla, Mexico, in the tristate area who have died from COVID. “I think Mexico and the United States have been lacking in doing these sorts of tributes for families and for those who have died,” Marco Castillo, the director of the center, told North Jersey. “These are the types of things they need to be doing in all the counties and places to honor the victims.”

What America’s First Ad Hoc COVID Memorials Look Like