On Monday, November 25, 1963, all federal agencies and departments in the United States were closed. For four days, all of the commercial television networks suspended their regular programming for the first time in television history. Many schools, offices, stores, entertainment venues, and factories closed down, and those that remained open held a minute of silence. The reason? Our entire country was observing a national day of mourning proclaimed by President Johnson, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In the United States, official days of mourning are proclaimed by a sitting president in order to allow the country to grieve deaths caused by tragedy, or the deaths of former presidents. Since 1963, there have been six days of mourning for deceased presidents, although none has equaled the scale of President Kennedy’s tribute; typically, presidents are honored by flying flags at half-mast and closing federal offices. Since Kennedy’s killing, only five national days of mourning have commemorated something other than a presidential death: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983), the USS Stark incident (1987), the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), and the September 11 attacks (in 2001, although technically this was a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” which has continued annually.) The total deaths across those five events: 3,471.
National days of mourning are not unique to the United States; almost every other country in the world holds them for similar reasons, and they may last multiple days or even months. To mourn is to express deep sorrow over a loss; when nations experience the collective loss of a leader, or of multiple lives due to a tragedy, it seems fitting – necessary, even – to set aside a time to weep.
Which is why I hope that, at some point, we will have a national day of mourning to allow ourselves to grieve for those who have died from the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States – a number that, as I write this, stands at nearly 300,000 people. (To put this number in perspective, it’s roughly equivalent to losing every single person in the entire city of Greensboro, North Carolina– or Pittsburg, or St. Louis.)