Memorials to the fallen of Covid

The red hearts of the Covid memorial wall are a makeshift shrine in the absence of an official site of remembrance. So how should we remember them?

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

If you walk along London’s South bank, you will see a wall of hearts. Hand painted, the hearts are uneven in shape and size, unsteady as a child’s handwriting that wobbles precariously into legibility. Some are emblazoned with the text “save our NHS”, while others bear the name of the dead rendered anonymously as “Mum” or “Nanny”.

All are red, the colour of blood, and, latterly, anger. This is the National Covid Memorial Wall, created by the people, for the people.

But do not be fooled into thinking that the pandemic grief has, in any way, been democratized, one heart at a time. Rather, the Memorial Wall represents an act of quasi-guerrilla commemoration, a makeshift shrine to the Fallen of Covid-19 in the absence of an official site of remembrance.

Yes, there are hearts. But their symbolism, beyond base sentimentality, is unclear

What is also absent is a coherent memorial narrative. Yes, there are hearts. But their symbolism, beyond base sentimentality, is unclear. Whose heart do we grieve for? The faltering heart of the NHS? The hearts of the departed? The heart of the State in whom we have lost trust?

The result is confusion. Monuments to trauma used to have a language. There was a time when this shared language might have been religious, or, at the very least, had a sacred coloration. Take the Cross of Sacrifice, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield for the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1918 and replicated in war cemeteries the world over (right). With its elongated Latin cross to which is affixed a bronze longsword, the lexicon of grief is universalised and non-adversarial, the language of piety clear.

Memorials to the First World War dead, overwhelmingly located in and around churches, thus take on what Professor Jay Winter calls “a sacred grammar”. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the many statues dotted around France of grieving mothers — Stabat Mater — their Christian motif uniting women in a constellation of grief.

And yet, despite the sacred lexicon that persisted in the Great War memorials, the overwhelming commemorative response to the conflict was one of abstraction, architectural obituaries to language and representation.

Non-figurative memorials became widespread in an attempt to make clear the sense of loss. But their mastery lies in their coherence; abstract they may be, but their message rings out in astonishing unison: Never Again.

Thiepval is the obvious example. Lutyens’s majestic memorial to the war dead rings out with a sense of hollowness, the Picardy wind whistling in and out of its vaulted cavities, its arches inscribed with names that lead to nowhere, the eye drawn to infinity. Or there is Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column in Romania, a memorial to the country’s First World War dead materialised in a vertical column of stacked, undulating rhomboids. Both monuments express the inexpressible, gesturing to infinity without nodding towards its covalent, chaos.

Later in the twentieth century, abstraction gave way to minimalism and, then, silence. Critics of memorial architecture date this turn with Maya Lin’s 1981 Vietnam Memorial, the first of its kind to adopt strategies from minimalism.

A right-angled cut in the ground consisting of 140 black granite panels, termed “the Wall” with the names of the dead inscribed upon them, the monument is shorn of a lexicon. Bearing no columns, arches, regimental insignia, the monument set the tone for further iterations of the same genre.

Such iterations include the 9/11 memorial in New York designed by Daniel Libeskind. Here, as with Lin’s memorial, minimalism has become the language of universalism. Walk around the sacrosanct edges of the footprints of the towers themselves, resplendent with what critic Kieran Long describes as “a certain pagan grandeur” and you will find yourself terribly moved, but by what exactly it is hard to articulate. Deprived of language and motif, modern monuments to grief tiptoe around the grand symbolic gestures of old, scared to alienate factions of multiculturalism. The result is ambiguity or even reticence — what feels like a preference for contemplation rather than the unpalatable realities of History.

What may one reasonably expect the memorial landscape to Covid to look like?

But what may one reasonably expect the memorial landscape to Covid to look like? What language will it speak? Local councils in this country have already begun planning, commissioning and throwing their weight behind funding campaigns for permanent memorials. Sadiq Khan has opened a memorial garden in Stratford with a tree for each London borough, and similar projects are being explored in Birmingham. St Paul’s Cathedral is fundraising to construct a physical memorial to those who died.

Figurative gestures are planned but these are to be consigned to the North, far from the metropolitan sensibilities of the South, where they would presumably be unwelcome. Accordingly, Bradford council is supporting a crowdfunded campaign for a statue of Captain Sir Tom Moore, and in Barnsley the council has commissioned a heroic bronze statue of key workers. If figurative gestures are to be made, they will pay tribute to the people’s pandemic. Don’t expect — if indeed you even were — a bronze of Chris Whitty or any other government tsar.

To the Fallen of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, there is no memorial. In the vast sweep of Great War memorialization, the 1918 pandemic leaves no trace despite its death toll of 50-100 million people between 1918-1920 (the First World War left 17 million dead).

This may have something to do with the conceptual difficulties in commemorating an illness whose spread is more difficult to frame, its nationalisms less triumphant (if at all). The Paimio Sanatorium in Finland designed by architect Alvar Aalto, once a tuberculosis sanitorium, now stands empty as a monument to the disease (which continues to kill thousands each year).

Accordingly, will the famous Nightingale Hospitals stand in as monuments to Covid; their cubicles and paraphernalia moved to glass cases where the public may wander round with an audio guide?

Or perhaps the testing sites and vaccination hubs will become sites of commemoration themselves, sorry staging posts on the road to commemorating a catastrophe that we cannot frame in either architecture or language.

The First World War constituted the most remarkable and catastrophic break in the history of commemoration. In its commemorative monuments and gestures, abstraction makes its debut proper, aligning itself to the jangly phenomenon of high modernism in the art and literature that was to follow.

But the abstraction of Lutyens, evinced so powerfully at both London’s Cenotaph and Thiepval, belies a classically trained mind that was unafraid to erect powerful monuments even if they were to slaughter and not victory.

If the Covid memorials are to move beyond banal literalism and meaningless abstraction, then they need to be bold. This daring must not pander to the rainbows, the hearts, or the clapping but rather to the unfashionable business of death. If we accept — as I’m not sure we fully have — that religious language and iconography is no longer acceptable, then we urgently need to find an alternative. I will not be paying any respects to the Fallen of Covid in a garden of rainbows any time soon

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