At the end of March, Claire Rezba heard about the tragic death of Diedre Wilkes. Wilkes, a 42-year-old mammography technician, had died alone from covid-19 in her home, her four-year-old child near her body.
Rezba, a doctor based in Richmond, Va., Was shaken. “This story resonated with me,” she says. “She was about my age. Wilkes’ death also increased Rezba’s anxiety and fears about bringing the coronavirus back to his family.
His response took the form of a commemorative project. Whenever she could find a minute, Rezba searched for reviews from deceased health workers. By mid-April, she had collected 150, which she began posting as a tweet on her personal Twitter account. The list, U.S. healthcare workers lost to Covid19, “Has become a mission,” says Rezba – and continues to grow every day.
Rezba’s Twitter account is just one of many emerging efforts to remember victims of covid online. Covid.memorial, for example, is a virtual album inviting people to learn more about the lives of lost people. A Google Doc of incarcerated Americans who have died of the disease shows the enormity – and anonymity – of the toll. Another catalogeu is dedicated to commemorating Filipino healthcare workers in the United States,
While the Google Doc is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, most of these projects are homemade, compiled by amateur Internet sleuths in honor of strangers.
In a year when thousands of people have died, it makes sense for people to want to find ways to understand the loss. Coronavirus patients often die on their own, with the usual rituals of watching death and dealing with grief being demolished by social distancing protocols. As the pandemic and rising death toll dominated the news, people trying to avoid the virus remained in their homes, feeling helpless.
The death which is at the same time so widespread and so far away is difficult for us to understand. Our brains are working against us, researchers sayIt’s one thing to know that four people were killed in a car crash, for example, or that a plane crash claimed the lives of 100 passengers and crew. But with “big numbers,” our ability to understand and empathize begins to wane.
The pre-2020 formula for handling death online meant commemorating the deceased’s Facebook account, perhaps opening an online condolence book with a funeral home, perhaps a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the expenses. These new online memorials are different, inviting strangers to take a peek into the lives of those who have died and to participate in mourning their deaths.
Stacey Pitsillides, a design researcher at the University of Northumbria who focuses on the technology of death, says virtual worlds are among the most innovative spaces bringing aliens together to commemorate the deaths of covid.
“We have seen an increase in creative bereavement,” says Pitsillides. An example: in Animal Crossing, the hit wellness simulation game of 2020, players who have lost loved ones will create monuments or characters in the game to honor them.
Even the funeral has changed. Gathering in a closed room, hugging a bereaved person, seeing a dead body – all are potentially fatal acts in a pandemic, which has led to a boom in Funeral zoom. “The pandemic only accelerates the funeral technology that was already in play.” Says John Troyer, director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath and author of Human Corpse Technologies. “Everyone can do it . “
It’s not just coronavirus deaths that are commemorated in this way. AIDS deaths were commemorated this year on an Instagram account, for example. Ron Sese, a volunteer on the project, told NBC that it helped an internet native Gen Z understand history: “’If history books don’t write about us, how do we tell our stories? How do we share our stories? How does the next generation find out about the generation that came before them? “
Mohammad Gorjestani, filmmaker, also feels the weight of history. Opening of the Even / Odd studio in Gorjestani 1800HappyBirthday with designer Luke Beard, who invites people to remember those killed in incidents of police brutality by leaving their voicemail on their birthday.
“It was limiting that these police killings and direct killings became sensationalist in the media and, once it was no longer sensational, move on,” Gorjestani says. “It’s a disservice to the people who were alive. These were individuals who were just trying to make a living, not trying to be martyrs or tokens for political platforms or politicians.
The 1800HappyBirthday, people can find the birthday of a person who died at the hands of the police and who leaves a voicemail message accessible to the public. These messages are filtered to keep racists and other fanatics out, but they are otherwise open to any memory or thought.
Gorjestani says the voicemail support – accessible to almost anyone – imparts a brutality that a written tribute often lacks. “There is a nostalgia with them,” he says. “It’s sentimental, like someone is trying to reach you. It is a denominational tool. Any human being can use them. “
This year’s distant life has shown that physical distance shouldn’t be a barrier to empathy. “There is a desire to shift death to a technological solution to help people experience and meaningfully understand what is far enough away right now,” Pitsillides says. “Millions of people are dying, but cell phones are a way to make these people more real, to use these spaces to create praise, to record and take photos.”
As of this writing, approximately 275,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus and nearly 1.5 million people worldwide have succumbed to the disease. Online memorials help, perhaps ironically, the living to grasp the humanity behind these extraordinary numbers.
For Rezba, the opinions on her Twitter account are people she connects with, that she watches from afar.
“I don’t know any of these people,” she said, choking. “But their losses are so personal.”