The rare challenge of building a pandemic memorial

A boy lights a candle at Vienna's plague memorial, the Trinity Column.

In late March, Vienna residents began leaving candles and prayers for protection at the Trinity Column, commonly called the plague column.

Dating back to 1679, the enormous, elaborate, centrally located pillar commemorates the Great Plague, in which more than 80,000 people died. More than three centuries later, the monument became a logical gathering place for memorialising those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic, which has a still-rising death toll of more than 400,000 around the world.

Public memorials often serve as solemn places for solace-seekers during and after disasters. At their most powerful, they offer “a gentle push toward a thoughtful or empathetic frame of mind,” says Dr. Mechtild Widrich, an associate professor in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism.

But unlike wars, terrorism, or other disasters, surprisingly little has been done to commemorate victims of pandemics, including the global outbreak that Covid-19 most closely resembles, the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. Similarly, despite being one of the most relentless and fatal diseases in human history, little has been built to commemorate those who have died from Ebola.

That has to do, in part, with the complex nature of memorials. “Historically, monuments were made for the victor,” Widrich says. Unlike statues built to fallen soldiers, the deaths of a pandemic are not heroic, nor did those deaths pave the way for success. The purpose of such a memorial – and the challenge – would be to honor the individuals who died of the coronavirus while in no way celebrating the loss of life.

Vienna's plague memorial, the Trinity Column, quickly became a place for mourners to memorialise the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)

The pandemic has waned in some of the hardest hit epicentres like Italy and New York, while it's still raging in others like Brazil. Architects and planners everywhere are focusing on designing for life in response to Covid, but it's in some of these hardest-hit areas where discussions could soon turn to considering the overwhelming task of creating meaningful, lasting monuments to the victims of this pandemic.

One of the most obvious, moving examples of dedicated public space for reflection and contemplation about a pandemic is the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, designated as a national memorial in 1996, 15 years after what became known as HIV/AIDS was first mentioned in US medical literature. In the five years before its official designation, hundreds of volunteers collaborated on annual workdays to beautify the grounds and design a memorial space that earned the city's participation and, eventually, recognition from the US Congress.

A man looks at the engraved names of AIDS victims at the National Aids Memorial Grove in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Like the best memorials, the space is somber and beautiful, with a blend of natural redwood trees and stone structures rendered with the names of the dead. It feels welcoming to the public, and sobering without being scary. It has also served as a catalyst for further memorials: In the past year, related projects have coalesced under its stewardship, including the AIDS Memorial Quilt and two HIV/AIDS oral history projects that have preserved more than 1,000 stories from survivors and loved ones.

The goal of the Grove extends beyond memorialising those who died of AIDS. It serves as a physical space that furthers a mission of keeping AIDS at the forefront of the national conversation. For that reason, it may serve as one of the most useful models for Covid-19 commemorations.

Much like Vienna’s Plague Column, the AIDS Memorial is also a space for communing during tragedy. “Over the past decade, the Grove has been the site of spontaneous gatherings in other times of great loss,” says John Cunningham, the memorial’s executive director, noting mass shootings have brought San Franciscans to the garden in collective mourning. “Hundreds gathered here after Newtown, when the nation was in a state of mourning, and again after Pulse nightclub, to remember the tragedy there and also redouble our efforts toward social justice and human rights.”

The lack of a memorial or place to gather – even something as obvious and seemingly simple as a burial ground – can add to feelings of grief and loss. Numerous strains of Ebola have emerged in the past 40 years, yet little physical space is designated to mourn the terrible, ever-growing death toll.

Between 2014 and 2016, the world’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak devastated West African nations including Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, killing more than 11,325 people. The current ongoing, second-largest Ebola epidemic, centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the nation’s tenth in 40 years – has raged since August 2018, killing more than 2,270 people, and shows tentative signs of finally slowing last month.

Due to both the magnitude and severity of the contagion, death caused by Ebola frequently leaves survivors without a body to bury. Bodies are often cremated in order to stem the epidemic, and in some areas, this means families do not hold funerals and have no cemetery to visit. This complicates important commemorations, such as Decoration Day in Liberia, when families spend time with and spruce up their loved ones’ gravesites – and it also informed the creation of Liberia's Ebola Memorial Cemetery, an Ebola gravesite that had initially been left unattended but was designated an official memorial in 2016.

While large physical gatherings are still mostly off limits due to Covid, much of the early work to memorialise the coronavirus pandemic has already begun in a virtual setting. To try to measure the overwhelming death toll, several news organisations have devoted resources to tracking Covid deaths. A small alliance of interfaith and social justice groups held a 24-hour virtual memorial in late May, reading aloud via livestream tens of thousands of names of people who died from Covid.

Other personal projects, such as the FacesOfCOVID Twitter account, seek to compile even a small percentage of the fatalities. Alex Goldstein, who runs a strategic communications firm in Boston, started the account in March and publishes several dozen obituaries every day with the help of his friend, Scott Zoback. They also receive photos and stories directly from family members whose relatives have died of the coronavirus.

Goldstein grew up in the shadow of a different disaster; he was a high school senior on September 11, 2001. For him, profound memories of 9/11 include crowds of thousands attending the funerals of firefighters, and the services broadcast to thousands more viewers. “But the nature of this pandemic limits our ability to gather, and that impacts how we mourn and grieve,” he says.

How these early digital projects might translate into physical monuments and memorials is unclear. In the aftermath of many disasters, makeshift memorials often arise first, as do digital remembrances. In the case of a catastrophe such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the designated memorial site is typically obvious.

People pause during a visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

That doesn’t mean it’s straightforward for numerous constituencies to negotiate the physical and emotional range the piece will convey. The process of selecting architects, artists, and designers can be fraught. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, for example, was the subject of political and economic debates for fundraising disputes and budget-related delays. Many victims' families boycotted the memorial, aghast that it would house unidentified human remains and commercially profit from entrance fees and a gift shop.

Some countries in particular might choose to include an element that reminds visitors of the devastating effects of a slow or inadequate public health response. For that, they could draw inspiration from a memorial in Hong Kong that pays homage to frontline healthcare workers that treated patients suffering from another coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In addition to the eight medical professors honored in the small park, the 2003 SARS epidemic killed nearly 300 people.

Cunningham notes that the National AIDS Memorial, created during a pandemic that has still not ended, offers a physical template for plague memorials as well as emotional and spiritual reminders on how to persevere through Covid.

“The Grove offers those living through a new pandemic a legacy of resilience,” he says, “and the reminder to never give up hope.”

Britta Shoot is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.