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The Inaugural COVID-19 Memorial

February 2, 2021

The Lincoln Memorial is usually bustling with energy and activity on the eve of a presidential inauguration, when it takes center stage for concerts, crowds, and celebrations.1 This year was different. The Biden Inaugural Committee struck a deeply somber tone in the midst of the pandemic, holding what was the first national memorial service for those who have died from COVID-19. That day, the United States surpassed 400,000 deaths from the virus since the first case was reported nearly one year ago.2

Until that moment, there had been no national recognition of the true cost of the pandemic. As BuzzFeed News reporter Amber Jamieson noted months prior, “Despite the enormous number of deaths—and the impact felt deeply by survivors of the virus, loved ones of the dead, and those suffering the enormous economic fallout—there has been no official national mourning. No minute of silence, no plans for a memorial to be erected in their honor, no collective grieving.”3 People stayed home to stay away from each other. They were barred from visiting loved ones in hospitals. Funerals were restricted to immediate family members only. Then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris acknowledged this private pain that so many have felt. “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves,” she said. “Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together. Though we may be physically separated, we the American people are united in spirit.”4

WATCH: The COVID-19 Memorial Service, from ABC News

As the sun set, 400 rectangular lights—spanning the entire length of the Reflecting Pool on both sides—were simultaneously illuminated, with each light representing 1,000 lives lost to the virus.5 They stretched toward the World War II Memorial, which prominently features over 4,000 gold stars in memory of the 400,000 Americans killed in that conflict. At that moment, landmarks across the country were lit in solidarity, and a nurse from Michigan and a gospel singer performed “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah” as part of the service.6

With the national spotlight on his inauguration, then-President-elect Joe Biden planned this memorial as his first event in our nation’s capital. He stressed unity in his remarks, underscoring his desire to move the country past the pandemic by first paying tribute to the lives that have been lost. “To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal,” he said. “It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here today.”7

Discussion Questions

  1. Look at this photo gallery of the Inaugural COVID-19 Memorial. How do the images make you feel? What stands out to you?
  2. How is this memorial similar to or different from any other memorial you have seen?
  3. How does this memorial express or shape the public feelings of the pandemic?
  4. What can the memorial tell us about the Biden administration’s messaging, vision, or priorities in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!


Featured Image Credit: Alex Brandon/AP
[1] Time: https://time.com/4640346/donald-trump-lincoln-memorial/
[2] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/19/health/us-coronavirus-tuesday/index.html
[3] BuzzFeed News: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/amberjamieson/coronavirus-200000-mourning-the-dead
[4] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition-updates/2021/01/19/958548751/we-must-remember-biden-harris-memorialize-covid-19-victims
[5] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/world/joe-biden-coronavirus-us-deaths.html
[6] Billboard: https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/politics/9513523/yolanda-adams-hallelujah-joe-biden-covid-19-memorial/
[7] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/world/joe-biden-coronavirus-us-deaths.html



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