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Corona Diaries: Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice

January 27, 2021

How will we remember the COVID dead?

When Sir Christopher Wren, architect and scientist, died in 1723, his son inscribed an epitaph on his tomb in the basement of his greatest creation, St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was in Latin. The English translation was “If you need a monument to him, look around you.”

It will not be so easy to commemorate the 100,000 people in Britain, or the 400,000 in the United States, or indeed the 1.5 million who have died in other countries since the COVID pandemic began.

Those who argue that COVID is just another disease, and that we all have to die sometime, might ask why a monument is needed beyond what the bereaved choose to provide.

That question overlooks the sense of shared grief that mass deaths from a common cause can create. Combatants who died in two world wars are remembered on monuments in every British town and village. The Holocaust is widely commemorated both in countries where it was perpetrated and in those that helped bring it to an end. In Japan, those who died from the world’s only nuclear bombings are remembered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We’re unlikely to see sad little lists of those who have died from COVID on stone or metal tablets. Just as the victims of previous plagues largely died anonymously, so it’s likely to be this time.

Yet we do have an opportunity to do things differently.

What if one of those corporations that benefited from the pandemic – Amazon perhaps, or Google, donated money to an independent foundation that sets up a global online memorial to those who died? An opportunity for the bereaved to post a name, a picture, a tribute or obituary that was available for all to visit?

And what if such a memorial contained basic demographic information – age, nationality, place of home, date of death – that helped researchers to map the progress of the pandemic in a way that informed responses to future pandemics?

The technology is available. There are precedents. Visit the Auschwitz Museum site, for example. Every day it posts on Twitter a picture of someone who died at the camp. Pictures of the young and old, laughing children and little babies who met their ends in the gas chambers. I started following the feed three years ago. Nothing that has happened since has desensitised me to those pictures and to the short biographies that accompany them.

If billions of people can be motivated to share their lives on Instagram and Facebook, is it inconceivable that a good proportion of those who have lost relatives and lovers to COVID, from Albania to Argentina, might not take some comfort from seeing the names and life stories of their loved ones in a place where they are never forgotten and can always be visited?

Or would we prefer the dead to slip away, remembered only by those who lost them and those in hospitals who tried to keep them alive, forgotten within a couple of generations like those victims of pandemics and plagues who died before them?

Just a thought.

And by the way, today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

From → History, Social, UK, USA

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