Since reading this Twitter thread by Kristin Rawls, it has been circling through my head. Within 8 tweets, Rawls has expressed the sad state of the United States of America during the COVID-19 pandemic, how we are collectively willing to reopen society and let tens of thousands more people die unnecessarily because we have been unwilling to mourn the loss of the tens of thousands who have already died.
The thread points out our complacency in waiting around for Donald Trump to show empathy and lead the nation in mourning when we know full well he has shown himself to be incapable of empathy. Rawls attempts to shake us out of our complacency by stating that Trump “is not a king and he does not control the media.”
We have agency here.
There is no need for us to wait to express our empathy, to mourn the individuals lost in the pandemic, to grieve with those who have lost loved ones if we have not lost someone directly.
When we saw there was a shortage of masks, we didn’t wait for someone else to solve the problem. We got to work and created patterns and gathered supplies and made masks and tested materials for their effectiveness and made better masks, all as individuals at home. Then manufacturers jumped into the game and made more masks. The actions of individuals spurred the actions of industry.
Why are we waiting now to start collectively mourning?
A Challenge for Local Museums
Museums, particularly small local museums, you are continually looking for ways to be relevant to your communities … here is your challenge and opportunity. Why not lead the nation in a grassroots effort to collectively mourn victims of the pandemic?
You are well suited to the task. Many of you are the repositories of public information regarding people in your communities, including census data, photographs, obituaries, and cemetery records. Some of you, provided your staff has not been laid off or furloughed, may already be collecting information and artifacts related to the pandemic. Why not explicitly tell your communities that you would like to collect the stories of those who have died so they can be preserved within your institutions?
Beyond this, why not create a public mourning ritual for those who have died in the pandemic so that all may grieve? The gold star became a symbol of a military member’s death in the line of service during World War I, with gold stars being more commonly displayed in the windows of homes during World War II.
Why not create a specific symbol of mourning that can be displayed by those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19?
Perhaps museums could get in touch with their local government officials and see if there are plans for any public memorials for the pandemic. If so, museums can help amplify those efforts. If not, museums could lead the way in creating a memorial.
In the meantime, how do we acknowledge those who have died and are dying during the course of the pandemic? Particularly when we can’t gather for public memorial events?
As I was thinking through the writing of this post yesterday, I ran across the following news story from the Brainerd Dispatch:
A proclamation by Governor Tim Walz states that “all United States flags and Minnesota flags to be flown at half-staff at all state and federal buildings in the State of Minnesota, from sunrise until sunset on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, and the 19th of every month through 2020 to remember, mourn, and honor the lives lost due to COVID-19.”
With this act, which brilliantly takes place on the 19th of each month, Minnesotans have one symbol of public mourning. Museums and others, let’s use this as inspiration to create several public mourning rituals for the victims of the pandemic and their families.
Perhaps families could post the number 19 in their windows or on their doors if they have lost a loved one to COVID-19. Or all of us could turn on a front door light or shine a flashlight out a window in mourning and solidarity for 19 minutes starting at 9:19 p.m. on the 19th of each month through 2020.
Regardless of what those public mourning rituals look like, the point is that most of us have the empathy and agency needed to collectively mourn an event that has taken the lives of so many precious people and flipped everyone’s lives upside-down. Let’s demonstrate it.