How to honor the COVID dead?

Music, like a program offered by the DePaul Community Chorus, offers insight into unfathomable loss.

Stephen Blackwelder, conductor of the DePaul Community Chorus, speaks to the audience during a performance at Gannon Concert Hall. Behind him is the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, which plays with the chorus.

Stephen Blackwelder, conductor of the DePaul Community Chorus, speaks to the audience during a performance at Gannon Concert Hall. Also onstage are members of the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, which plays with the chorus.


Should we honor the COVID dead?

The current tally for the United States is 972,000 and climbing by 1,200 a day. At this rate, we’ll hit 1 million Americans dead of COVID-19 sometime in mid-April.

Do we memorialize the fallen? And if so, how?

Opinion bug


Uncomfortable questions. Americans are used to solemnizing those who die in wars. They have their own day. (Sigh. It’s Memorial Day.) And while some Americans visit graves, in general the holiday is marked with ball games, blowout sales and potato salad.

Some countries have national moments of silence. I’ve been in Israel during their Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, and at the appointed moment people stop driving and stand outside their cars, heads bowed, for a two-minute moment of silence.

Silence is not a very American concept. We’re more into physical monuments. My hometown had a statue to a Union soldier on a plinth in its downtown triangle, a silent sentinel that I never associated with anyone dying until now.

The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a sprawl of low walls and stumpy columns and burbling pools that I would be hard-pressed to envision in my mind’s eye, and I was there. More a fancy marble skatepark than a memorial.

The gold standard for war memorials is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a black granite gash in the earth with the names of the 58,000 American military who died in that brutal, grinding war.

Should we try to do something similar for the COVID million, victims of another conflict that divided our country? Hard to imagine. Maybe there is an artist or architect who can put the plague years into meaningful shape and mold public perceptions as Maya Lin did.

Maybe we won’t even try. Non-war dead don’t make the cut. There is no Cancer Day, no significant monument to the 675,000 Americans who died of influenza in the 1918 pandemic.

Maybe it is up to us to commemorate in our own way. I accidentally participated in one such event Sunday, at a concert by the DePaul Community Chorus. I didn’t expect it would relate to the plague; I was there with my wife and younger son because our good friend Ilene sings with the group.

The concert was supposed to be given two years ago, inspired by conductor Stephen Blackwelder’s reflection on the role of death in society.

“I’ve thought a lot about death not having its power as a vital and necessary component of human life,” he said.

The program consisted of three elegiac works — Henry Purcell’s 1695 “Funeral Music for Queen Mary,” an 1814 Beethoven piece, then the program highlight, “Requiem for the Living,” by Dan Forrest, composed in 2013.

The little pre-concert talks conductors give do not typically speak to our political moment, but after “these two long, difficult years,” Blackwelder’s did.

We “seemed almost numbed to dealing with death,” he said. “We’re all veterans of that now.”

He explained how the program, delayed by COVID, has taken on an even greater relevance.

“We could not have planned for the depth of meaning it has for us now,” Blackwelder said.

I’m not a particular fan of classical music composed in the past century. But Forrest’s Requiem was in turn pastoral and triumphant, “surprisingly beautiful and in some ways wrenching,” just as Blackwelder hoped it would be.

Program notes are also not a place where you expect challenging thought. But longtime chorus member Rev. Dr. James J. Olson didn’t mince words reflecting on the COVID years.

”I fear we have not risen to the occasion as one might have hoped,” he wrote.

You mean all those scream-in-one-another’s-faces arguments over mask mandates and vaccine requirements? Yeah, not our shining national moment. We’re a country that could both quickly figure out the complex science of a life-saving vaccine and also refuse to take it.

“Too many remain cavalierly unconcerned for their fellow humans and in complete denial about the possibility of death — their own, or that of a loved one,” Olson continued. “May this music strengthen our resolve and our forbearance as this pandemic continues, to live not only for ourselves, but for others.”

Music can do that. I attended the concert to support a friend but ended up being supported myself. That’s how life works. We should memorialize the 1 million COVID deaths, not to benefit the dead, who are beyond our reach, but for our own sake. We are a wounded nation, in need of healing.

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