Touching the Dead, a way of Remembering.

In the Days of Covid I have been trying to call to mind the reality of the deaths we as a country have absorbed. How can we envision what half a million looks like, or 600 thousand? The numbers keep rising.  When the New York Times listed 1000 of the first 100,000 deaths it termed the losses “incalculable.” That number seemed so large back in May of 2020. Since then we have multiplied that number by six. And with the passing of time we have reimaged and recalculated again and again. When we reach 670,000, as we surely will,  one out of every 500 people in the US will have died from Covid. 

The exercise of numbering is important, but in the end these are just numbers. It is the senses, the empirical senses, that bring the reality of so many deaths home. The medical personnel dealing one on one with the dying know this.The numbers are grounded in experienced death. Families desperate for help and not finding it know this and they become companions in the death watch with hundreds of thousands around the world similarly ground down by the harsh realities of health systems ground down by the flood of cases. They have been touched by close encounters with Covid. For them extrapolation to the big numbers is experiential. For the rest of us it is an exercise mostly of the mind - using signs and symbols to represent people who have died.

For all my efforts to engaged the immensity of these numbers, I have been very conscious of the distance between the art objects made to hint to the numbers and the visceral reality of immense numbers of dead. 

My first effort - a bound book containing 230,000 “1’s” - made it possible to hold in my hands an object that contained this big number, the number of US dead by November 1, 2020.  I called this “Book of Numbers.”  I could hold the book and turn the pages and reflect on the same dreadful news… one on one on one.  

My second effort was a larger visual experience- a large set of panels with half a million dots, which themselves formed a picture of shapes, spirits, hovering over the background of many thousands and thousands of dots. I believe the viewer can take in the whole field and know in some sense what that number “looks like.”  And still it was too easy to take the numbers and weave them into a story…dots that meant something to the perceiving mind.

The New York Times also tried to envision half a million in a wonderful front page graphic in which a column of dots were arranged on a time line with a density determined by the daily death tolls.  This was published a few days after I had completed the panels. Like the panels it was a graphic representation of an even more incalculable number. 

These efforts mostly involved visual art, in which persons are represented by marks, and the marks located temporally and spatially to give us a sense of the whole. The book attempted to place the numbers in a capturing device, a net, made up of bound book pages, so that there could be a tactile experience. It worked, but the effect was still primarily visual, because or most immediate reaction to a book is to see it as a visual tool for information exchange. Book lovers may love holding a book, but book users read. Some who opened the Book of Numbers saw only pages filled with 1’s, they never got the sense that they were holding in their hands these lives.  The tactile sense was lost in the habits of book use.

This past week I created a very different way of marking the now almost 600,000 U.S. deaths from Covid-19.  In a large wooden bowl, carved by my wood sculpture friend Roy Fitzgerald, I put roughly 600,000 brown and black mustard seeds.  In our exhibit, “Remembering and Naming,” the bowl is on a stand with a votive candle behind it. Visitors are invited to run their hands through the seeds, to let the seeds flow through their fingers, to smell the light pungency of the mustard, and to feel the presence of the souls represented by the seeds.  This is not an artful use of vision, but of touch and smell, and the evocation is not of a visual story, but a sensual one.  

Because we are so un-used to this sort of presentation, I wrote a poem / meditation to accompany the tactile engagement. It was posted on the wall beside the bowl. It reads:


So small, my soul,

so wide the gulf of death.

Standing on this shore

I gaze across to where 

the waters meet the sky

and wonder

why some are taken

others stay.

Why, if my faith is that

even of a mustard seed,

does my heart grow cold

and my mind shut down?

Why is it so hard for me 

to comprehend that death

is all around, and near,

and has no shame?




The mustard seeds

slip through my fingers

in this lavabo bowl.

I wash my hands in the souls

of all who have died,

And at last I see and feel:

Every soul has worth,

small fragrant markers

of the spirit that permeates

the whole and makes

the spirit of the one,

and the spirit of the many,

and the Spirit of the all together,


Whatever else these effort mean, they tell me this:  Our hands are closer to the truth of things than we sometimes realize. Our senses are immensely more powerful than we give them credit for. In an information age we sometimes limit information to the signs and symbols that our visual field can encompass. But the world of experience is filled with empirical realities, things touched, tasted, smelled, and heard, as well as seen. And perhaps a sense of what the incalculable deaths from Covid will come to us by touch as well as sight.  Perhaps we can feel the deaths slipping through our fingers, smooth small seed stones held for a moment in our hands before gravity pulls them down. Perhaps we can smell the pungent earth from which they came and to which they go.  And as we do these things we will remember, with all our senses.

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