Five years ago, when the AIDS quilt was first displayed on...

Coping/Mortal matters

October 19, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

Five years ago, when the AIDS quilt was first displayed on the Mall in Washington, D.C., it included more than 1,900 panels, each commemorating a person who had died of AIDS. By the time it returned to the Mall Oct. 9 for a three-day display between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the quilt had grown to more than 21,000 panels.

Organizers of the project say the quilt has grown so large that this year's display on the Mall may have been the last time it can be shown in the same location at the same time.

The rapid growth of the quilt -- as well as its expansion far beyond the male homosexual community, which originated the project -- is more than a grim testimony to the toll the AIDS epidemic is taking. It is also a tribute to the importance of naming and remembering the dead.

That message is especially powerful on the Mall, a symbolic space that holds a special importance in our national life.

A decade ago, a more permanent memorial was dedicated on the Mall. Like the AIDS quilt, the memorial to Americans killed in the Vietnam War depends largely on the power of human names.

That black granite wall is now one of the nation's most-visited memorials. But when the design was first unveiled, critics were scathing in their denunciations of what they called a "wall of shame." At their insistence, a statue of three service men was discreetly added to the site. Interestingly, that statue now gets relatively little attention by the visitors who stream by the wall, reading the names or rubbing their hands over the chiseled letters.

Designed by Maya Ying Lin as a project on funereal architecture for her senior seminar at Yale University, the memorial derives its elegance from a simple idea -- naming the names of those who died. Her idea was not new; many of the monuments to soldiers who died in World War I also list thousands of names.

But Ms. Lin's design was a dramatic departure from the more heroic war monuments Americans had traditionally erected. Yet the wall of names somehow touches feelings within people that few statues ever reach.

The wall has become a place to go and remember, a place to leave flowers and mementos of a life that was lost in war. It has also become a place of healing for the divisions that wracked this country during the Vietnam War.

The quilt touches similar feelings, but in a less formal way. A quilt is not as solid or permanent as a granite wall. But quilts are comforting and cozy. They suggest home and hearth and the love and caring of a family circle. With no cure for AIDS in sight, these are the best weapons we now have against the ravages of a terrifying disease.

The quilt is portable, and Americans all over the country have had an opportunity to see parts of it. Those displays provide a powerful experience for visitors, putting human touches to the impersonal statistics of the AIDS epidemic.

The NAMES Project, the organization that oversees the quilt, specifies only the size of the panels and requires that each one carry the name of the person it commemorates. Beyond that, the panel's design is up to the quilters. What strikes most visitors is the way in which the endless variety of panels contributes to a similar theme -- the notion that behind every name is a life that is unique, irreplaceable and worth remembering.

Naming names is a way of remembering the dead, and remembering is what helps make us human. By remembering our lost loved ones and by commemorating their lives, we help to work through our grief -- and to give ourselves a way of ensuring that death is not the last word on a human life.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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