The Coronavirus Will Force Us to Change How We MournRoundup
tags: Civil War, public health, coronavirus
Drew Gilpin Faust is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University professor and President Emerita at Harvard University. She is the author of "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War."
As the covid-19 death toll mounts, we are forcefully reminded that humans are bound together by their mortality. Throughout history, they have struggled to face their own deaths and to explain and endure the deaths of others. Different eras and different social, economic, political and religious circumstances have shaped how we die and how we mourn. Yet death has presented similar challenges across time and space: What do we do with the bodies? How do we heal the rent their departure introduces into our lives and our world? How do we explain unfathomable loss?
More than 150 years ago, Americans struggled with these emotional and logistical questions as individuals and as a society. Between 1861 and 1865 an estimated 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War. This represented nearly 2½ percent of the nation’s population — the equivalent today of more than 7 million people. This “harvest of death,” as many 19th-century Americans described it, affected not just the bereaved themselves, but broader collective understandings of citizenship, national community and the value of human life. How they treated and remembered the dead, Americans came to recognize, defined the extent and limits of their own humanity.
We will not be confronted with 7 million dead, nor is the coronavirus pandemic likely to persist for four years, even if it returns with new spikes after the current crisis has passed. But numbers expected to reach beyond 100,000 dead have been devastating — in reality and in prospect. Each of these losses is a tragedy, and collectively they represent an assault upon much of what we had come to take for granted about our modern world. The pandemic’s rapid spread robs us of our illusions of safety in a time when antibiotics had seemed to conquer infectious disease and when the power of science and technology had seemed to minimize our vulnerabilities. Death was a subject many of us in the United States had the luxury not to dwell upon, but to deny and push to the margins of consciousness, to postpone considering until life’s very last days. Efficient and systematic, both medicine and the funeral profession whisked death’s evidences out of sight, aiding us in our commitment to keep them out of mind.
But last week, New York City, the pandemic’s epicenter, erected field hospitals in Central Park. The overwhelmed hospital system had compelled a reversion to arrangements that we think of in relation to Gettysburg or Antietam, not 21st-century Manhattan. Covid-19’s highly contagious nature means patients must die alone, with no loved ones to offer solace through death’s passage. Morgues are full, and bodies too numerous to handle are being stored in refrigerated trailers. Trenches will be dug for temporary burial of 10 coffins in a line on Hart Island in the Bronx. Funeral homes are running out of chemicals for embalming, crematoria cannot process the volume of bodies. Viewings have been abandoned and shelter-in-place requirements make funerals impossible.
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