A Nation Grieves: COVID-19 Memorial Flags

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., has long been a place of monumental memorialization, from permanent fixtures such as the Washington Monument and the Vietnam War Memorial to temporary collaborative installations like the AIDS Memorial Quilt. “In America: Remember,” by Washington, D.C., artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, helps us visualize the scale of loss due to COVID-19: each flag placed on the National Mall represents a life lost. The installation invites people to memorialize loved ones who have died of COVID-19 by writing messages on the small white landscaper flags. It also creates a space for the public to walk through rows of flags, in private contemplation and in public remembrance. 

Coping with death is often a public process. Funeral processions, rituals in worship, and burials in cemeteries are ways that deaths of individuals are honored. In the face of larger-scale tragedies, people in the United States still look to public memorialization. Items left at memorial walls, roadside crosses, and spontaneous shrines are all examples of grieving private loss in the public sphere. Amidst our current national grieving, the museum is working to document the pandemic through objects and stories, which will preserve this moment for future generations to understand. 

[photo: Memorial flags, 2020]

Nearly 700,000 flags dot the National Mall, paying somber tribute to the lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States. The flags in this display case are from Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s installation on the same topic last fall, “In America How Could This Happen…” Then, she needed far fewer flags, around 270,000, to mark the deaths.