Covering 20 acres beneath the Washington Monument, the somber memorial leaves space for us to grieve.
National Geographic History & Culture, by Rachel Hartigan, photographs by Wayne Lawrence, September 17, 2021
Beneath the Washington Monument hundreds of thousands of small white flags flutter in the hot breeze. Landscape workers and volunteers walk among them, stooping to plant the flags 10 inches apart until they fill 20 acres of the National Mall. Each flag represents an American life lost to COVID-19.
“One of those lives is my little brother, John,” says Jeneffer Estampador Haynes, who has come to Washington, D.C., from her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to volunteer at this memorial art installation called In America: Remember. “He was only 30.”
Born with Down Syndrome, John Estampador “was a big kid who gave the best hugs,” says Haynes. When Estampador, who was affectionately called John John, went into the hospital on January 15 with low oxygen levels from COVID-19, his parents, with whom he lived, also tested positive. They weren’t allowed to visit him, but Haynes was—once a day for 30 minutes. She watched him through the glass door to his room, but she wasn’t permitted inside to hold his hand, to let him know she was there. After 13 days in the hospital, John John died alone on January 28, 2021.
Haynes wants people to know her brother wasn’t just a number.
Numbers have been inescapable during the coronavirus pandemic—case counts, vaccination rates, the death toll. As of this week, one in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19. Any day now, the United States will pass 675,000 deaths—a grim tally that equals the country’s toll from the 1918 flu pandemic, still the deadliest worldwide outbreak in modern times.
The scale of this devastation is hard to comprehend. But artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, who created the installation, believes she has found a way to convey the extent of the loss—and to create a space where the nation can collectively grieve. “We all understand that we’ve gone through a national tragedy, but it has rolled out so slowly,” she says. “There’ve been no moments of pause.”
Firstenberg hopes to create such moments at the installation, which will be on the mall from September 17 through October 3. The sheer number of flags—more than 670,000 installed by volunteers and 150 employees of Ruppert Landscape over the course of three very long days—forced passersby to slow their steps even before the exhibit officially opens today. Tourists, office workers, dog walkers ask what the flags are for; when volunteers tell them, their faces light up with comprehension and then settle into sorrow.
Firstenberg, who has served as a hospice volunteer for 25 years, conceived of this installation in the summer of 2020 when she saw a newspaper headline refer to the death toll as a statistic. “So many lives were being devalued,” she says, especially those of the elderly and people of color.
She chose flags to represent the lives lost because they are already symbolic—and she could afford small flags. She selected white as a sign of purity and of the spirit—and to make it easier for people to personalize them. At the first installation of In America, held on the D.C. Armory Parade Grounds from October 23 to November 30, 2020, visitors were offered black markers to write their loved one’s name on a flag.
Firstenberg and her team plan to have 10,000 Sharpies for visitors to use at the National Mall installation. Those unable to make the trip can request on the installation’s website that a message to their loved one be written on a flag and planted for them. The flag will be photographed and its location recorded so mourners can find it on a digital map of the installation, created by Esri, a geographic information company.
“I needed to make sure that this art was accessible to every single person who lost someone,” says Firstenberg.
Transcribing the messages is heartbreaking, says volunteer Sara Brenner of Arlington, Virginia. “You’ll get several in the same family,” she says, recalling messages she wrote for a father and a grandfather who died in February 2021, and then for two other family members who died several months later. “We’re speaking for the dead, and we’re grieving for the dead.”
Mourners are encouraged to decorate the blank flags however they wish. Two days before the current installation opened, a group of doctors and nurses from Maryland’s Howard County General Hospital arrived to plant flags with red stickers they’d added to honor the more than 3,600 health care workers who have died. They managed to do 600 but they intended to return to finish the job. So did Debjeet Sarkar, the emergency room doctor who organized the group. He planned to return alone to personalize flags for the 65 patients he’s lost to COVID-19.
The interactive nature of the installation is crucial. “Throughout time, we’ve used action for mourning,” says Firstenberg, pointing out that preparing food for grieving families is still a common practice. Planting a flag and personalizing it gives people a chance to participate and “to move through mourning.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. One hour into her shift planting flags, Edna Boone was reeling. “I’ve already called my mother,” she said. The Washington, D.C., resident had volunteered at the first installation, after coming upon it while on a bike ride. “I just stopped,” she said. Though Boone hadn’t lost anyone in her immediate circle, she became a conduit for friends and family who wanted names added to flags, especially from her hard-hit home state of New Jersey. Every night, she’d visit the installation, which concluded with 267,000 flags, and think of each fluttering piece of fabric as a person.
The installation at the Washington Monument is so much bigger—and likely to grow. Each day, new flags will be added to reflect the previous day’s death toll. Firstenberg is not sure she’s ordered enough flags.
Unlike many families who lost loved ones to COVID, John John Estampador’s was able to hold a funeral, but they had to stand 10 feet away from his grave and socially distance from each other. “Not being able to hold my parents, who’d lost their only son, was just awful,” says Haynes. She can still hear her mother’s cries.
The flag installation provides some solace. “It shows the world that these were our loved ones,” she says. It’s shown her that even people who haven’t been directly affected by COVID-19 are mourning. “They care,” she says, “and this means a lot.”