Newsletters > On Our Minds

On Memorials: A Meditation on Memorialization, Grieving, and the Arts

December 21, 2021ISSUE 10 • April 2021 | Erin Gold

Image of EJI's Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, AL

Nineteen months ago, I learned my grandmother was dying from COVID-19. Before receiving the news, I was thinking about making dinner. After receiving the news, I sat on my kitchen floor and watched my Vitamix blend overly ripe tomatoes for pasta al pomodoro. Alone and unable to say goodbye, I felt ill-equipped to confront the impending loss.

Nineteen months later, I can tell you what I hungered for that evening was not food but a way to process the personal and communal loss I was experiencing. I knew little about how to memorialize my grandmother. I knew even less about memorials. Yet that evening marked the beginning of my almost two-year-long journey of exploring the role memorials play in the process of grieving.

In the summer of 2020, the City of Detroit transformed Belle Isle, a state park in the middle of the Detroit River, into a memorial that consisted of close to one thousand photos of local residents who had lost their lives to COVID-19. Driving around the island, each photo I saw made me think of my grandmother, and each family I saw standing beside a photo made me think of my own family. Afterwards, I realized these were not simply photos of loved ones staked into the ground but were, in fact, makeshift graves. “Instead of a family visiting a grave, the ‘grave’ comes to the family–that is, the public,” writes folklorist Jack Santino about temporary memorials. For three days, Belle Isle became a graveyard, a temporary memorial.

At their core, temporary memorials help mediate what American Studies Professor Erika Doss describes in Memorial Mania as “the psychic crisis of sudden and often inexplicable loss.” Temporary memorials are not only public expressions of grief, Doss explains, but are also a means to legitimize and manage that grief. This first-hand experience of communal catharsis through the memorialization of Belle Isle sparked my interest in understanding the function of memorials. After that day, I decided to seek them out. I wanted to better understand the different types of memorials, how they preserve certain memories and stories, and, most importantly, how they influence what we collectively remember and believe.

In May 2021, I took a road trip to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the National Peace and Justice Memorial. The memorial commemorates the approximately 4,400 Black victims of racial terror lynchings that took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950. While I’d been interested in seeing the National Peace and Justice Memorial since it opened in 2018, the pandemic had given me a new sense of urgency to visit. I wanted to experience first-hand how victims of one of the darkest narratives from our past have been memorialized.

The main memorial consists of a pavilion of 805 hanging steel markers, one for each county where a lynching occurred. Every marker is engraved with the name of the county, then the names of the victims, and finally their birth and death dates. Initially, the markers made me think of a vertical gravesite. As I descended further into the memorial, however, the markers felt more like gallows.

The weight of the entire space was palpable from the moment I walked through the gate and stepped on the memorial grounds. “You are not meant to be consoled, but rather confronted,” writes Connor Towne O’Neil about the memorial in his book in Down Along with That Devil’s Bones. According to Towne O’Neil, memorials like this one “asks us to grieve, to sit in the weight of who we have been, and to let that weight mold our sense of who we are.” Memorials, O’Neil explains, “…want to hold us to account.”

Six months after my trip to Alabama, I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) for its annual Dia de Los Muertos exhibition. This year DIA curators adapted the exhibition to acknowledge the pandemic and account for the toll it has taken. Visitors were welcomed into the exhibition with a sign that read, “The DIA acknowledges the profound loss of Detroiters and people worldwide to the COVID-19 pandemic…We hope this exhibition provides a safe space for the mourning of life lost and celebration of life lived.”

Walking through the exhibit and witnessing each artist’s unique ofrenda, I found myself wondering what I might put on my own altar. How would I honor my loved ones and capture the year that I had lived through? While each alter represented ideas of personal importance to the artist, many also considered timely issues and events that impacted many of us this past year. Days after I was still thinking about it. The coexistence of the personal and communal in one space had permitted me to mourn while still asking me to bear witness. I began to wonder if I actually needed a physical memorial to help me process my feelings or just a well-timed trip to the museum.

Over 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and the pandemic has not come to an end. As the death toll continues to rise, we will continue to need outlets to help us make meaning of what we’ve already lived through and will continue to live into. Which is to say, we are still in need of memorials. Not only memorials that are permanent reflections of our history, like the National Peace and Justice Memorial, but memorials that can evolve as our grief evolves. We now require memorials that are ephemeral and quick to respond to public need yet still hold us to account.

I am convinced the arts and cultural sector can help to fulfill this need. We have the ability and means to curate art that, as Doss suggests about temporary memorials, “…encourages the social release of grief…[and] ‘shoulder[s] a great deal of social weight.’” The venues we have historically sought out to experience moments of joy, reprieve, and even discomfort, can now become vessels for memory, places where we go to remember and mourn. Like temporary memorials, the arts can help us “remember the recently, suddenly dead, to make [our] loss visible and public.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that arts organizations have taken on such a role. In the wake of September 11, 2001, the arts sector stepped up to support communities across the country in processing the profound loss of that day and make sense of their new and disturbing reality.

Entering the third year of the pandemic, we are now living in a new reality. As with 9/11, the arts sector as a whole has a unique opportunity to support community members as they both grieve the losses of the past two years and imagine how to proceed into the future. I do not mean to suggest that wholesale changes in public programming are necessary, but rather that a new level of consciousness and intention be brought to them.

Arts organizations must ask how they can use ritual and symbolism in a way that gives their audiences the chance to imbue their programs with deeply personal meaning. Such ritualistic elements might be as simple as processionals, special messages in program books or at the beginning of exhibitions, and ambient lighting or projections. While grand gestures are unnecessary, ones that evoke intention and care are vital. As Belle Isle changed from a park into a temporary memorial, performance spaces and exhibitions should contemplate ways they too can transform into environments that legitimize and manage their audiences’ grief.

Before the pandemic, museums, and theaters alike programmed a wide variety of exhibitions and performances that elicited a wide array of emotions. They gave us the means to acknowledge our feelings when words escaped us. Now it would behoove arts organizations to start thinking about their venues as spaces where audiences can come to acknowledge and perhaps make sense of the pandemic and help us imagine the world we will continue to live in. There are many steps along the pathway of mourning. The arts and culture sector is uniquely capable of taking us down this road, as memorials do, and holding us to account while still propelling us forward towards acceptance.