We lined up outside the Historic Chapel on Halloween: six feet apart as has become usual, and masked, but some of us unusually so. A volunteer, tasked with maintaining COVID-safe densities, ushered us into the austere chamber. At the far end, tiers of candles cast flickering light over a vivid, life-size painting of a weeping woman, identified by a sign as a “cinnamon-colored Statue of Liberty.” Chains of marigolds and bouquets of roses wound between the lights. Pieces of candy, Tupperwares of homemade food, and bottles of Coke and whiskey anchored photographs scrawled with devotional messages in several languages.
The Corona Altar was the work of artist Scherezade Garcia, one in a series of programs and installations presented at Green-Wood Cemetery under the banner of “Death Education.” With burials on the decline in recent years, these programs have been central to reinventing the cemetery’s role in the city: leveraging the historic landscape to examine death and mourning at a sort of remove, through a cultural lens. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the boundary between art about mourning and actual mourning has blurred. Judging from the long line outside the chapel, and the spiking attendance at Green-Wood’s other, now-digital Death Education programs, New Yorkers are hungry for a place to bring the questions, both practical and existential, that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. “Take time within the space to reflect on those we have lost,” the Altar sign instructed, so we did.
In April, photographs of refrigerated trucks parked outside city hospitals and scores of coffins lined up for temporary mass burial on Hart Island shook New York. By May, Green-Wood’s crematorium was working at more than double its normal rate. The backlog required operators to clock seventeen-hour shifts, booking appointments five weeks into the future. Services sprawled into the parking lot.
But, these brutal accommodations notwithstanding, the scale of our losses has been hard to locate in the daily fabric of urban life. For all death’s new omnipresence, even Green-Wood has seen hundreds of thousands more visitors coming simply for the open space, rather than to grapple with loss. On weekdays, neighborhood schools have sent students and teachers to find space for socially distanced learning among the graves. Urban space has transformed to accommodate the pandemic paradigm shift in so many ways—homes rigged up as workplaces, public parks retrofitted for privacy, roads revamped as dining plazas—that to see cemeteries become parks and classrooms is hardly a shock. But where then does the city put its grief? Where do the dead go?
Mourning in 1838 looked much different from the cosmopolitan abundance of Garcia’s 2020 Altar. But Green-Wood’s purpose at the time of its founding—to stage a living public’s encounter with the dead—was much the same. This new landscape, its founders thought, could organize the omnipresence of death into a beautiful condition. In the era of morbid Victorian sentimentalism, a virtuous urban citizenry needed training in the noble enterprise of death.
Nehemiah Cleaveland, an early Green-Wood booster, beckoned the public to the cemetery’s rolling hills and copses: “Hither, tired denizen of the city—poor mortal, weary of man, and strike, and business, and pleasure, and care—hither come! Enjoy this stillness—enjoy the seclusion—enjoy yourself!” George Templeton Strong, another supporter, saw in the cemetery’s design the potential for a “state of high civilization” bounded by architectural restraint and an absence of pagan imagery. For his part, Cleaveland disdained the artificial flowers and toys some mourners left at graveside, and issued a warning to the overly emotional: “Confine your passionate utterances to the friendly bosoms that share your grief; or, still better, breathe them only in your secret sighs.”
If these men intended to design an experience of sober and sophisticated contemplation, happier publics flocked to the cemetery by default. Rural cemeteries were some of the only available greenspaces in rapidly industrializing cities. Gradually, the presence of leisure-seekers among the gravestones grew into a troublesome incongruity. The city parks movement took off, and the cemeteries’ role as public stages for mortal-feeling waned.
After the mass horror of the Civil War, death required containing, not contemplating; the mourning practices that arose in its wake are our modern ones. Death and dying, once fundamental and regular parts of life in the home and the public realm, came to be siloed in hospitals and professional, profit-bearing funeral parlors. Our boundaries of acceptable mourning are just as stark, but draw closer around family units and private institutions: rather than mourning shrouds and post-mortem photography we have condolence cards and casseroles. Bereavement therapies and limited quantities of “compassionate leave” mark out socially acceptable space and time for grief; outside of them, we all seem to agree, death and life ought not mix.
Green-Wood’s forays into “death education,” then, are part of a small but energetic “death acceptance” or “death positivity” movement, which rails against the stigma, anxiety, and abusive costs perpetuated by the “funeral industrial complex.” Interventions like death café discussion groups, living funerals, and advance planning sessions encourage participants to confront with equanimity the looming fact of their own demise. Mourning rituals should be naturalistic and community-based, advocate-undertakers say, and empowered mourners should have an active hand in their loved ones’ last rights.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and social distancing have prevented even the most impoverished of modern mourning rituals from taking place. Some public agencies have stepped in: New York City’s Human Resources Administration nearly doubled the size of its grants to partially cover burial costs, and for survivors, a helpline and remote group therapy facilitated by the New York State Office of Mental Health have offered support previously unavailable as a free public service. But in these efforts—reasonable attempts to help the city’s bereaved articulate their losses in the typical idiom—something shows itself amiss. Of these “coping circles,” several have been dedicated for overwhelmed caretakers and those facing unemployment with no end in sight, as the pandemic fallout puts members of those groups, as well as unpaid caretakers, at greater risk for mental health crises. The city began releasing unclaimed remains to non-related community members during the first tidal wave of pandemic deaths. There is a broad sense, difficult to articulate, such enormous grief needs more space than all the nation’s cemeteries can provide. Coping is not commensurate. Condolences are not enough.
Poet Allison Cobb spent the better part of ten years with Green-Wood on her mind or under her feet, working toward what would eventually become her genre-eschewing “cultural biography” of the cemetery. But during the first year of the project, she avoided it. “The still smoking hole across the water held my attention,” she writes, “a smell curling inside the minds of the million-headed city, even in sleep.”
In the days after the World Trade Center’s collapse on September 11, 2001, the city erupted with painted murals, chalk drawings, candles, photos, posters, notes, flowers, toys, religious signifiers, and agency badges of various kinds covering walls, sidewalks, storefronts, kiosks, utility poles, and barricades. The displays served multiple functions: to represent the dead, to search for the missing, to express fear and uncertainty and a feeling of lost innocence. Spontaneous vigils and gatherings, too, cropped up across New York. Unlike the material outpouring, these meetings were notable for their muteness. The public realm was filled with an absence of speech.
But (human) nature abhors a vacuum. Public figures and laypeople alike rushed to interpretation. Onlookers gathered papers and other items sent flying from the towers by the planes’ impact, even collecting the “dust” (which was also ash, containing human remains) that settled over Lower Manhattan in anticipation of a future archive. Over the course of days, witnesses reported, disbelief passed and the nature of the gatherings across the city shifted. “There was a palpable sense of coming to terms with a trauma instead of letting oneself be crushed by it,” described Edward S. Casey, a professor of philosophy who attended one such vigil in Union Square six days after the attack. “Incredulousness and numbness… yielding to another way of handling the trauma, one that refused to be buried under it.”
Architects, politicians, and journalists almost immediately began discussing how best to respond to the destruction of the towers, how to fill that smoking hole. As Cobb renders Green-Wood’s complicated landscape, competing visions for the site—whether the voids should be allowed to rewild, cultivated as a contemplative garden, or filled in with towers to recoup the unpaid rent—clash in the background. The wars begin and go on, sending bodies to the cemetery. A “memorial grove” is planted, and towers rise again.
The energetic force of grief proves easily manipulated by abiding powers. In the case of 9/11, rather than repair, trauma gave way to a spirit of vengeance that innervated an imperialist agenda. The more plural, street-level chorus of direct experience was replaced by successor “Freedom” towers, as well as local and national memorials that enshrined a narrative of perpetual victimhood — and rationalized hundreds of thousands of additional deaths.
Like the photographs posted across the city twenty years ago, the faces of the dead found their way onto walls and fences during COVID’s early days. The images seem to suspend their subjects between life and death; the raw grief tells its own story. Along with Garcia’s The Corona Altar, “Naming the Lost” walls were erected in Sunset Park, the Lower East Side, the Bronx, and Queens over the spring and summer. In April 2020, local news organization The City embarked on an effort to document every New York City pandemic death; by January 2021, the website had memorialized only 1,960 out of the 26,398 confirmed and probable deaths. Comprehensiveness was, probably, always out of reach. Still, The City plugs away in the hopes that an archive, however incomplete, may be useful in some future effort to understand what happened here.
As the pandemic enters its second year, we find ourselves in the gap between trauma and speech. Reflecting on why processing the deaths directly has taken up relatively little space at Green-Wood, one of the cemetery’s educators suggested: “It’s too early for us to memorialize.” She meant a method of reckoning, through space and ritual, that could process the trauma of the pandemic for incorporation into a larger narrative; a way of coming to terms rather than coming apart. Indeed, though most share the sense that the trauma of COVID-19 has meaning beyond the sum of the individual deaths, efforts to present that meaning in a more formal register have been frustrated and frustrating. Turning to a memorial vernacular so quickly affects a kind of flattening, trampling the individual dead beneath the march of history.
On September 22, 2020, a group called the Covid Memorial Project placed 20,000 American flags on the grass by the Washington Monument, each representing ten COVID-19 deaths. A little over two weeks later, “Covid Survivors for Change” placed 20,000 empty chairs near the same spot. “We are living through this collective national trauma—we’re six months into the pandemic and still sort of reeling from it,” one of the organizers told a CNN reporter; “the lack of acknowledgment, lack of recognition” was a compounding factor in survivors’ grief. But this recognition came without naming. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. Online projects like the COVID Memorial disagree, collecting names and stories in order to insist that the dead are “Not forgotten. Not just a number.” A Twitter account called Faces of COVID thrusts photographs and short obituaries into a stream of information that approximates public discourse. But this is not speech. The volume becomes noise.
In the first few months of the pandemic, reports of racist abuse of Asian Americans threatened a return to the kind of American ethnonationalism that followed 9/11. If the risk of that variety of violence seems largely to have passed, another kind is looming: that of numbing, of speechlessness without end, of individual losses drowned in the onrushing stream of collective trauma. Coping is incommensurate; memorialization is premature. But there is another option: Not putting the dead to rest, but keeping them present until they say what they need to say. There is another outlet—another place to manifest these losses, to find out what they mean. Not the mortuary, not the neighborhood mural, and not the war memorial. Not the cemetery, but the street.
On April 5, 1911, 100,000 people—mostly women—followed a hearse through the streets of Manhattan. Piled high with flowers, the carriage was drawn by six white horses, draped with black netting. The women, too, wore black, without overcoats or umbrellas to keep off the icy rain. They carried large sewn banners reading simply: We Mourn Our Loss. Hundreds of thousands in funereal garb reportedly lined the route to watch the somber march. “There was something ominous about the gathering,” the American newspaper reported. “It was so silent.”
But as a contingent from the north passed under the Washington Arch to meet another group of marchers, they caught sight of the burned-out Asch Building on Washington Place. Confronted with the building’s charred upper floors, the combined crowd gave up what the American described as “one long-drawn-out, heart-piercing cry, the mingling of thousands of voices, a sort of human thunder in the elemental storm.” It was, the reporter ventured, “the most impressive expression of human grief ever heard in this city.”
Less than two weeks earlier, 146 garment factory workers—women and children—had burned behind locked and blocked doors or jumped to their deaths to escape the flames as neighbors and firefighters looked on, helpless. To the distraught crowds that gathered in Washington Square while the fire blazed, it was clear the flames were no natural disaster: the factory’s owners kept the shop floor dangerously crowded, and had recently begun locking the doors to quell a burgeoning unionization effort by workers.
In the days following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, survivors congregated outside the 26th Street Pier Morgue to await the release of the bodies. The same police who had clubbed strikers in Washington Square one year earlier lay in with batons when they deemed the bereaved crowds unruly. After a week, seven bodies remained unidentified and unclaimed. Fearing the growing political momentum, the city refused to issue permits or release the bodies for a community funeral, and instead ferried them to Brooklyn for interment in a publicly owned lot. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union called for another general strike, and a defiant funeral procession to match it: the hearse that the marchers accompanied that icy April day was empty.
During the political funerals organized by ACT UP some eighty years later, the bodies of the dead themselves were intensely present. Following in the garment workers’ footsteps, ACT UP members bore their friends and comrades through the streets in open coffins. Banners and signs bridged the distance between funeral and direct action; speakers blended eulogy and manifesto. “Bury Me Furiously,” demanded ACT UP member Mark Lowe Fisher in a statement he wrote to be read aloud at his own funeral. Just before Election Day in November, 1992, Fisher’s body was carried in an open coffin from Judson Memorial Church to the Republican National Committee Headquarters on 43rd Street. In July of that year, members of ACT UP carried a banner inscribed like a gravestone through the East Village: DAVID WOJNAROWICZ 1954-1992 DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT.
Before he died, Wojnarowicz, an artist, warned his friends against being lulled into submission by the rituals of mourning, becoming “professional pallbearers, waiting for each death.” Rather than assimilating their losses into ongoing life, he wrote:
I imagine what it would be like… if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington D.C. and blast through the gates of the White House and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.
The public had to be as shocked as the mourner-activists were heartbroken; nothing less was adequate. “Bringing the dead to your door; we won’t take it anymore,” the crowd at the 1992 Ashes Action chanted before throwing the cremated remains of AIDS victims on the front lawn of the White House.
In this tradition of political funerals, grief refuses confinement to the cemetery, to “friendly bosoms” or “secret sighs.” Its breaking out into the open activates geographies where public and private, collective and personal, already converge. Word of the garment workers’ funeral strike was spread via hand-distributed flyers and neighborhood socialist newspapers like the Call and the Jewish Daily Forward, and strong local unions helped the cheek-by-jowl neighbor-laborers see that they both rose and fell as a collective. The event released immigrant workers’ fellow-feeling, filling Lower Manhattan with a politically potent, intimate charge that the powers-that-be sought to circumscribe, sequester, and suppress. ACT UP members were often friends, lovers, and neighbors before they were comrades-in-arms. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the streets of Greenwich Village, perhaps the world’s most famous venue for vibrant queer life, were transformed by furious queer grief.
For ACT UP’s political pallbearers, mourning loudly—proudly, even—was a strike against neglect. To hide the bodies, to keep the losses private, would be to reproach the dead for the lives they had lived. A similar politics of presence undergirds the more than 50,000 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. When the quilt is displayed, devotion, rather than rage and grief, takes over the public realm. The dead are manifest in the individual relationships that the panels, as articles of handcraft, represent. Patched together from clothing, belongings, and even human remains, these panels address the dead as an invisible audience that silently receives their declarations of love and meticulously reconstructed memories.
Over the years, factions in the AIDS survivor community have clashed over what narratives the quilt should properly inscribe and evoke: whether it is “queer enough,” whether it is too “soft,” too much about love and not enough about sex, too much about loss and not enough about life, too radical or not radical enough. Yet the plurality of the lives represented in the quilt—the dead incarnated as their most youthful, healthy, joyous selves—is what renders the enormity of the death toll outrageous instead of tragic. Visitors to the quilt and onlookers at a funeral-protest might share a sense of witnessing expressions of pure and irreproachable grief. But rather than sorrow as such, in the quilt, the power of presence inheres in what Marita Sturken, a leading scholar in the niche field of Memory Studies, calls a “refusal to mourn.” In its defiant effort to immortalize love, the quilt, Sturken says, confronts “many enemies, of which, ironically, the virus is represented as the least and the U.S. government as the most culpable.”
At one Californian middle school, parents’ memories of working on the AIDS Memorial Quilt inspired students to attempt a memorial for COVID-19 using the same gestures. The panels of this quilt are much smaller—eight inches square, a symbolic reference to eternity, rather than six feet long, the size of a coffin. They name not only the individual dead, but groups and institutions like nursing homes and hospital workers. Many panels are dedicated to the lost as a uniform group. Some represent aspirational abstractions like “hope and healing.”
A year into this pandemic, our “enemy” is hard to pin down. The virus itself is too ephemeral to carry the moral weight of all this death. Survivors’ groups that call for better public health practices and relief from obvious federal malfeasance have come closer to the point; still there is a sense of unfulfillment, of leaving something out. Bringing loss into the public realm should force confrontation and accountability from those with the power to affect a different outcome. In these memorials the deaths still feel, somehow, frictionless. Mourning becomes harder to refuse when reigning narratives characterize typical victims as already sick or old enough to die. It’s a tragedy, so the story goes. Not that they should be dead, but not that they shouldn’t be either.
But the outlines of an adversary become visible as the virus reveals the world in which it circulates. Across the country, rates of infection and death among people of color far outstrip those of their white counterparts, reflecting historical geographies of environmental racism and worker exploitation. Rashes of unemployment and deepening hunger hew to the same lines. Nursing homes—under-resourced, unregulated, hidden from the public eye—are wiped out, emptied. Perhaps the virus was, in some sense, a freak occurrence, like a terrible fire. But who set the kindling, who locked the doors? Who, or what, made it impossible for so many to escape?
For New Yorkers sick with the virus in the spring, which hospital they were admitted to could determine whether they lived or died. Understaffed public hospitals were overrun, after nurses’ unions had battled the hospital systems over inadequate staffing for years. Here there are failures that add up to an enemy. During the pandemic’s springtime peak, so-called safety-net (public) hospitals were sometimes unable to perform the technique known as “proning,” in which a patient with labored breathing is turned onto their stomach, relieving pressure on their lungs. To manage the tangle of IV drips and vital machine wires required staff the overstretched hospitals could not spare. Private hospitals often had high-tech beds with the ability to turn automatically. A tragedy is tragic because it could not have been avoided; an outrage is outrageous when there’s a reason it was not.
At the end of Green-Wood, in the poet’s eyes, the cemetery’s landscape seems to contain everything: the book wanders from the Mayflower to the Mekong River Delta without leaving Central Brooklyn. But the cemetery cannot hold Cobb’s grief. It is a space for making peace, for contemplation, and 9/11 was an experience that annihilated peace, defied contemplation. The horror of ascending from the subway into the ash and smoke covering the city as the planes hit. The smell, the sound. “I have / no ritual for this, no place / to exist. I grow strange, a cry / and nothing else, the force that / through the darkness moves the breath.”
At the end of May, I surged with thousands of my neighbors along Flatbush Avenue towards the Brooklyn Bridge. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were dead, but we were more than mourning. We were grieving: them, and thousands of others murdered by police; ourselves and our vanishing futures; the dead lost to COVID-19 and the living plunged into precarity. The sun began to set and we took the street, chanting. In the twilight, stopped cars blared their horns and passengers on stalled buses raised their fists, silent behind the thick glass and their masks.
For artist and anthropologist Abou Farman, whose work often addresses a “continuum” between private and public grief, politics determines mourning: The deaths that matter are the lives that matter. The power of the Movement for Black Lives, then, has been its ability to rewrite a narrative of simple mortality—of acceptable collateral damage in the service of “order”—as one of mass murder, a slow-moving unnatural disaster. Recent protests represent a refusal to cope. Rather, the bereaved “charge the present with the unyielding gaze of the dead, with their damning presence.” Through staged confrontation in the public realm, Farman suggests, grief can transform the destruction wrought by COVID-19 from a cold, biological fact into an active, social harm.
If the ongoing presence of the dead creates the pressure that produces justice, injustice can sustain itself by disappearing them. To a local observer, the abuses that sparked the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the subsequent protests, appear to have been resolved. An annual ritual marks the event with a tolling bell and an offering of flowers. But in 2012, just over a century later, a garment factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh—whose clients included Walmart, Ikea, and the US Marines—went up in flames. More than 117 workers, mostly women, perished behind locked exit doors. Less than five months later, another Dhaka factory collapsed, claiming 1132 lives and injuring thousands more; such “tragedies” recur throughout the factories of the global south. If industry has not become more respectful of life, we have become expert at hiding our eyes from these deaths.
In the eyes of New York’s affluent queer community, the AIDS epidemic might appear similarly to be a thing of the past. By 2019, panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt hung in the Brookfield Place mall, reduced to a colorful backdrop. Meanwhile, Black men were more than six times as likely to be infected with HIV as their white counterparts, and Black women more than 20 times as likely; a disparity driven, research suggests, by mass incarceration and its geographies of removal, confinement, and deprivation.
Power prefers the dead to disappear; a rush to mourning risks disappearing them on behalf of the powerful. The lives COVID-19 most avidly consumes are the ones already closest to death. It’s no accident that they are also the most spatially set apart: in nursing homes, in factories, in prisons and jails, in segregated neighborhoods and enclaves of precarious immigrant workers. If mourning would bring us to terms with the loss of their lives, we shouldn’t do it. In the city, rather than coping with or containing our losses to cemeteries and memorials, we could refuse to mourn. We could charge the public realm with the presence of the dead, keeping them here until they receive the redress their deaths demand.