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From Memorial Hall and its Memorial Transept, to Memorial Church, to the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard Yard has expanded from a backbone of remembrances — memories made material by the communities left behind.
Dedicated in 1874, Memorial Hall honors the 136 Harvard associates who fought in the Civil War and lost their lives for the Union cause. Four decades later, a grieving mother gifted funds for the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library — Widener to all students thereafter — as a tribute to her son Harry, an alumnus who drowned aboard the RMS Titanic. On Armistice Day in 1932, Memorial Church opened in memory of the Harvard men (and eventually, the Radcliffe women) who had died in World War I. The Church has since added tributes to University lives sacrificed in later wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Generations of students, faculty, and staff have cycled into and out of the Yard since these commemorated individuals passed on — indeed, since many of the people with memories of them died too. But the structures they inspired remain intact and their remembrances endure. For, on occasion, the “memorial” name prompts us who stroll in front of those buildings to stop and spare a thought to their original purpose. I lived at Harvard for one fairly-reclusive semester, and even I passed all of those buildings and recalled their origins often.
In a normal year, I might not have spent so much time thinking about these three structures, but I feel a fierce kinship with the Harvard students of those pasts now. The anguish that death — of a common cause, of a scale impossible to envision, and of a lengthy period — can bring has again fixed itself in our national conversation. It has parked itself here at Harvard too. That kind of collective grief, so strong it supports memorials 100 years later, feels less removed from our experience than it once might have.
So far, my own grief has been isolated by necessity. As I doomscroll on Twitter or skim the newspaper at my desk, tributes and personal obituaries to pandemic victims bring tears. When I listened to President Joe Biden speak to our national tragedy once, and then again, on my computer, alone at the kitchen table with headphones in, I sobbed. I expect that I’ll cry again soon.
Online tributes to more than a half-million American individuals are, of course, not enough. They serve as make-shift substitutes until we can meet shoulder-to-shoulder. When that day comes, we will need to take more concrete steps to mourn and heal. We will need spaces to do so.
Communities and organizations across the country have assembled a few temporary memorial spaces. I am sure that many more permanent spots are in the works. Still, government projects advance bit by bit — it is likely that we will not see a permanent Covid memorial in our hometowns or at any place near Harvard for some time.
When we no longer need to distance, most students will return to (or in some cases, move into) our home here at Harvard. Faculty and staff will return to their routine places of work on campus. Our University might be the first community into which many of us re-integrate after the pandemic finally passes.
We will need a space in which our Harvard community can mourn together. We will need to process our personal sorrows and our collective grief — the University needs a Covid memorial. Harvard should put together a working group, composed of all the many stakeholders in our community, to assemble an effective memorial before the hustle of campus life returns in the fall. I envision a semi-permanent installation commemorating in some way the Harvard graduates, students, and employees who lost their lives, and all the bereaved Harvard associates who lost loved ones in the past year too.
I’ve encountered the stately precedents for Harvard memorials on my walks in the Yard, but memorials do not have to be that grand to be compelling. At the moment, speed of construction feels far more important than permanency. That can always come later. More Americans have died of Covid than died in World War I and World War II combined — we are hurting and our pain needs immediate attention.
The bells of Memorial Church were inscribed with the phrase “in memory of voices that are hushed.” When the bells ring, those are the individuals for whom they speak. I want us to remember the voices taken from our lives, and I want us to do so together too.
Charlotte R. Moses ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Adams House.
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