How will we remember COVID as the years go by and the virus vanishes into the fog of other tragedies that inevitably occur throughout history?
This past year has been a time of monumental global disaster on virtually every front, and the financial and other material casualties are dwarfed by the stark numbers of the dead, with each of the 2.6 million fatalities worldwide leaving grieving survivors: families, friends, students and others who continue to mourn that person’s life. In that respect, the number of people whose lives have been profoundly affected by the coronavirus is incalculable.
Traditionally, monuments are for heroes and those leaders whose lives and deeds otherwise merit impressive statues, obelisks, pavilions, bridges and stretches of highway in their honor, although as we are increasingly discovering, one person’s hero is another person’s enemy.
Memorials are for historic events, disasters such as the World Trade Center attacks or the Oklahoma City bombing, or bloody wars and battles and their victims, as well as for less far-flung calamities, such as ghost bikes memorializing cyclists who have been killed on the road, and the curbside bouquets and candles you’ll find in every town where someone has died in an accident or by violence.
The year’s global nightmare of COVID-19 has been by any definition a historic disaster and it has been, even as it was on the rise, memorialized all over America and the world, from the online National COVID Memorial launched by doctors in Kolkata, India, to the somber and stark “empty chair” memorials in several cities in America, including Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Minneapolis and Pierre, South Dakota.
Community leaders and organizations in Atlanta have put up thousands of “broken hearts” to commemorate “Loved Ones, Not Numbers,” and in Edina, Minnesota, gold hearts were put up at City Hall for each town resident who died from COVID.
Tuesday, March 23, is the one-year anniversary of the first recorded death by the coronavirus in Long Beach, and today the number of deaths is approaching 900, a number that certainly warrants a memorial.
Yes, those are loved ones, not mere numbers tallied by health officials and relayed by news outlets. Each one had a name, a story, a chair at the table, a place in the hearts of others who will remember them for the rest of their lives.
And those survivors will memorialize the dead in their own private way, whether by flowers at the grave site, or prayers, or fond conversations and the sharing of memories.
But how should Long Beach as a city commemorate their deaths, while also honoring those who cared for them and consoled them in their final lonely moments, as well as those braving the perils of the virus to serve the rest of us as our lives continue?
Staff writers for the Long Beach Post asked several people in the community—those who know a bit about the persistence of memory through art, philosophy, religion, and other means of expression—about possibilities for paying some manner of tribute or reflection to acknowledge and remember the past year in its sadness and heroism.
Long Beach punk-rock legend Brian Coakley spent last year writing an entire album about civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic for his new band, the Anti Virals’, debut album, “Brainwashed,” released in January.
While the album will serve as a small testament to the events faced by humanity in 2020, when it comes to the thought of the city honoring those who died from COVID-19, Coakley has some ideas.
He pointed to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., a 246-foot-long black wall of granite bearing the names of the more than 58,000 soldiers who died in the war, as a starting point. He said it would be fitting if Long Beach did something like that for the nearly 900 people who have died in the city to date.
Whatever the city might do, it should be prominent and put in a location where people frequent, possibly on the bluffs along Ocean Boulevard, Coakley said. One thing he’s certain of is that the memorial must include the names of the victims so they can be remembered as humans, not statistics.
“Never forgetting these things is so important and we can’t always count on our education system to teach every little thing we need to remember,” Coakley said of a future memorial. “It’s a testament to ‘This happened. Don’t forget.’”
If the city opts to erect a statue, Coakley said it could borrow from Catholic imagery. But instead of having Jesus being removed from a cross it could show a healthcare worker with a patient dying in bed, their family looking through a window, unable to be with their suffering loved ones.
“It would tell a lot of the story,” Coakley said. “In that scene the health care worker would be the hero, they would be the positive.”
Michelle Brittan Rosado
Michelle Brittan Rosado, an award-winning poet who has lived in Long Beach for a decade, said that while other artists and creatives used COVID-19 isolation to produce works, she has not done much writing over the past year.
Instead, she said she has used the time to observe the new world—masked and socially distanced—and the powerful imagery it contains.
“I’ve been noticing people’s eyes so much more,” Rosado said. “Some things may go unsaid or can’t even be articulated through words but so much is being communicated, at some other level, through our eyes.”
During the winter surge, on days when the sky seemed darker than usual, Rosado said she could not help but wonder if the cause was crematoriums working overtime to keep up with the gruesome demand.
The disease has not affected Rosado’s family directly, but for the nearly 900 Long Beach residents who have died, she said she hopes an outdoor memorial with art, open space and maybe even a poem is put up in their honor.
“Our relationship with the outdoors has changed,” she said.
Rosado’s heritage stems from Irish and Malaysian backgrounds and she still has family in the Southeast Asian country. With family on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, she said she often thinks of water as a means of staying connected to others, even those who are no longer living—a theme she has explored in her writing.
“Poetry has the ability to bring people comfort, to unify them,” she said, noting that the pandemic has left many to face their grief in solitude. “Even when this is all over, there’s still going to be so many echoes of the people who are no longer here and the traumas everybody will be carrying forward.”
Guillermo Avalos has been able to meet the challenge of memorializing such cataclysmic events as world wars and other armed conflicts. The 46-year-old muralist and freelance contractor designed a mural called Long Beach Veterans in 2006, which is on display along the side of a building facing Houghton Park in North Long Beach.
The design of the mural depicts images of U.S. servicemen from different wars. It serves as a reminder of those who lived and died during such harrowing moments. But Avalos now faces a new challenge: memorializing the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is something unlike any other tragedy that has happened,” Avalos said. He is currently in talks with a private commissioner to create a mural in honor of COVID-19 victims. It’s still in the early stages of planning, and Avalos is struggling to capture the essence of the pandemic.
Avalos has contemplated falling back on what he knows best, which is to celebrate the lives people lived before they died. In late February, Avalos teamed up with local high school students and artists to create the “Mexican Tree of Life” mural that would be on display in an alleyway in North Long Beach. Talks about how this mural will look began months before the pandemic started, and since the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were detected in Long Beach, the design has gone through multiple iterations.
The final look is a blast of color and flowers with pictures of people’s faces, pets and signs of hope and peace. Avalos said the students wanted to celebrate the victims and a community that has suffered through an unexpected event.
“When you know you lost over 500,000 people in this country, and we just ignore it, we can just expect that this may happen again,” Avalos said. “But by us doing some sort of a remembrance, we’ll tell the story of those that lost their lives to this tragic pandemic.
“War plaques or memorials are put up to remind people that things happened,” Avalos said. “If not, years later people will consider that this was a hoax or something that was over-exaggerated.”
Dave Van Patten (muralist) & Kashira Edghill (visual artist)
For muralist Dave Van Patten and his girlfriend, visual artist Kashira Edghill, the pandemic has been an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their art, both separately and together.
“In a certain way, it’s taken its toll. But in other ways, it’s really shown me who I am,” said Edghill, who worked as a housekeeper on the Queen Mary prior to the pandemic. “Isolation is good for that: building up more of the core of who you are,” Van Patten said.
Both continued to work on their art throughout the various lockdown phases.
For Edghill, that meant creating surreal drawings that spawn from ink blottings reminiscent of a Rohrschach test. For Van Patten, it meant creating murals in Humboldt County and the city of Bellflower, as well as creating commissioned pieces and tongue-in-cheek drawings about the virus, masks and those who refuse to wear them, at home.
A memorial, both artists agree, should center on a sense of humanity and community. Edghill imagined an image of a group of people, naked and huddled together, reflecting both human vulnerability and the protection we seek in each other. This concept, she admits, would likely work better in a controlled environment like a gallery, given that not everyone might find nudity suitable for public display.
Van Patten, whose works can be seen in murals along Retro Row, Alex’s Bar, Whole Foods and elsewhere, imagined a large-scale mural, modeled, in style, after his grandparents’ living room and drawing, in concept, from the experience of growing up in a large family.
As a child, family parties were big events, but “little by little everyone dies, and the chairs at the dining room table are replaced by portraits on the wall,” he said.
His mural, he imagined, would use that symbolism to represent the lives lost to COVID-19 as pictures of Long Beach residents who died, framed and hung behind a large dining table. At each end of the table stands a person, a thought bubble over their heads depicting a time when people can come together again, hug, feel a sense of community.
“Community is what makes us human and I feel like this has really been an assault on our humanity,” Van Patten said.
In December, one of her favorite aunts living in Tijuana died of COVID-19, and Long Beach native Nuria Ortiz, known as the interdisciplinary artist Ms. Yellow, remained “shocked” from the news. She would never see her beloved tía, Sylvia Venegas, again.
The news came to her during a live painting event in Santa Ana. She swiped spray cans of greens, oranges and blues and reds over a tall piece of plywood, keeping her Tía Sylvia in mind.
The end product showed a caricature, a woman, with dark hair covering an eye, foregrounded on a patterned circle as small planets and stars hovered around the face. The woman was surrounded by vegetation next to an orange jaguar, which, Oritz said, represented the “fierceness” in her aunt, who was never afraid to speak up.
“Her face is a little sad, but her soul is also finding peace,” she said about the artwork.
Painting her offered healing. Solace. In general, when people see her murals, some of which already explore themes of resilience and hope, she believes that it can heal others too.
Just recently, the Long Beach Airport in an art exhibit unveiled last week featured one of Ortiz’s pieces—one that depicts two women waving at each other as they ride large birds, saying “I Miss You” and “We Got This” to each other.
Ortiz said that if Long Beach should create an official memorial, it can be anything from a flower garden to a waterfall to more murals—just as long as it’s “something calming, reflective and hopeful.”
This pandemic has been a “bump” in lives, and she said a “tasteful” memorial could help prevent people being swallowed up by the darkness.
Having a huge connection with nature, which shows often in her artwork, Ortiz compares humanity to plants.
“They can totally grow and expand like crazy in the right environment, like we can, but as soon as the sun is blocked or the person stops attending to it, it starts to die.”
Rabbi David A. Cantor
While Rabbi David A. Cantor said he counts his blessings that everyone in his congregation of about 120 people at Temple Beth Shalom has made it unscathed through the pandemic, the rabbi said his vision for memorializing the dead might replicate a tradition already present within the Jewish religion.
Known as a Yahrzeit, which means anniversary in Yiddish, it is a time when people gather on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. The first anniversary, Cantor said, is particularly important. Mourners light a candle meant to be burned for 26 straight hours and tell stories of the person they’re remembering.
“Stories are how we come to terms with mourning. People live on as long as they’re remembered,” Cantor said. “And so, one might imagine a ceremony like that, where we remember all the people we have lost in the past year.”
But for those who may seek more frequent ways of remembering the dead, Cantor suggested adopting a practice the Jewish community takes during their most joyous occasions, such as festivals, to honor the thousands who died during The Crusades. In the capture of Jerusalem during the end of the First Crusade in the 11th century, thousands of Jews were slaughtered.
“We set aside 15 minutes to remember everyone who has died, because even in the midst of all your joy, you have to have a little bit of sorrow,” Cantor said. “Little things have big impacts.”
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