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As the pandemic rages on, finding ways to mourn and remember


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As the toll from the pandemic in this country topped 450,000 deaths this week, the numbers are almost too vast to comprehend. Many wonder how best to mourn and remember those who have been lost.

As Jeffrey Brown reports, communities, individuals and the federal government are finding artistic and poignant ways to honor and keep loved ones close to their hearts.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Pres. Joe Biden: Let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred Pool of Reflection and remember all whom we lost.

Jeffrey Brown: On the National Mall, on the eve of the inauguration, 400 lights representing the 400,000 Americans who've died in the pandemic, a somber, official act of mourning, even as many across the country create their own memorials in their own ways.

In Detroit last summer, a distanced drive-through of more than 900 large photos of COVID victims organized by the city. In Washington state, a live streamed performance by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings."

Efforts to make sense of the lives lost in the United States, the greatest number of deaths of any country in the world. Some target specific communities hit with terrible losses.

Sylvia Orozco: About half of the people who have passed away in Austin, Texas, are Latinos.

Jeffrey Brown: Sylvia Orozco heads Austin's Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas.

Sylvia Orozco: We could not stay at home. And because people weren't staying at home, because they were riding the busses, because they were working day to day, they were contaminated with COVID.

Jeffrey Brown: The museum, with funding from local community groups, commissioned a large-scale mural on its downtown wall to commemorate Austin's Latinos who had died, and chose Mexican-American artist Christin Apodaca to help design and paint it.

What was the goal in making this?

Christin Apodaca: I was hoping that people would feel seen and feel heard.

And I feel like my goal was just to have a space for them to have remembrance for families and friends and loved ones that are lost. I think having a public space was something that was necessary, something that is accessible to anybody.

Jeffrey Brown: As museum director Orozco showed us over Skype, the design draws heavily on symbolism from the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration.

Visitors can also view an animation of the mural using a smartphone app.

So, in a sense, the mural comes to life.

Sylvia Orozco: The mural comes to life. The flowers and the little skulls are transformed into monarch butterflies. And the monarch butterflies then travel.

And they travel each year from the United States back to Michoacan. They are the souls of the dead. And they come back and they are received by their family members.

Jeffrey Brown: In the nation's capital, several installations have sought to capture the massive scale of the death toll, 20,000 American flags on the National Mall in September, the same number of empty black chairs on the White House Ellipse in October.

That month, Maryland artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg went even bigger, 220,000 flags planted in the D.C. Armory Parade Ground, a first effort to represent every American who had died to that point.

In a sense, you're capturing both the individual and the scale?

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg: Absolutely.

I have been a hospice volunteer for 25 years. And I know that every single one of those lives lost was precious to someone, mattered, was important. So I had to make some kind of statement that said, each life has to be valued.

Jeffrey Brown: The installation was up for two months. Flags were added as the death toll rose, with visitors able to personalize their own.

For Firstenberg, this was an expression of pain, but also protest at the mishandling of the pandemic by national leaders.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg: America is the greatest country on earth. That's how I was raised. And to watch us become the greatest because of COVID deaths was unacceptable. I was outraged.

Jeffrey Brown: In New Jersey, it was a deeply personal loss that first inspired 16-year-old Hannah Ernst.

Hannah Ernst: When I realized my grandpa, who is everything to me, was just another number, I knew I had to do something to try to fix that.

Jeffrey Brown: Ernst's grandfather, Cal Schoenfeld, died of the virus in may at age 83.

Hannah Ernst: He is a Brooklyn boy through and through. So, he was a New Yorker. He was the first person to go up to anybody and ask where they're from, learn stories. He told stories.

Jeffrey Brown: Her response, a simple drawing, a digital silhouette of her grandfather surrounded by a yellow heart, the symbol of COVID-19.

Her mother posted it on social media and unlocked a wider yearning.

Hannah Ernst: And then, from there, it just snowballed into something extremely huge. And, eventually, I was getting requests internationally.

Jeffrey Brown: Requests for drawings of their lost ones. Hannah created Facebook and Instagram pages called Faces of COVID Victims, where she began to post portraits in the same style.

To date, the high school sophomore has drawn more than 800 tributes to those who have died from the virus.

What do you think your grandfather would think of this project?

Hannah Ernst: He would be ecstatic just seeing the effect I'm having on so many families, and just being able to add some sort of positivity and hope that their loved one won't be erased and forgotten as just another person who's contributing to the unfortunate death toll that we now have.

I think he would just be so ecstatic and just proud. And that's one of the things that really helps me do what I do.

Jeffrey Brown: A silhouette, a wall, flags in a field, lights on the National Mall, these and so much more solace in a time of mourning.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And we have more online, where you can watch the musical tribute to victims of COVID-19 from Washington state's Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

You can find that on our Website,

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