The AIDS Memorial Quilt

The NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt, often just called the AIDS Memorial Quilt, is an enormous quilt made as a memorial to celebrate the lives of people who died of AIDS-related causes. Weighing an estimated 54 tons, it was the largest piece of community folk art in the world as of 2016. (

The idea for the Memorial Quilt was conceived in 1985 by AIDS activist Cleve Jones during the candlelight march, in remembrance of the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, a gay activist, and Mayor George Moscone. For the march, Jones had people write the names of loved ones who were lost to AIDS-related causes on signs that would be taped to the San Francisco Federal Building. All the signs taped to the building looked like an enormous patchwork quilt to Jones, thus inspiring the quilt. (Id.)

At that time, many people who died of AIDS-related causes did not receive funerals, due to the social stigma felt by surviving family members and the outright refusal by many funeral homes and cemeteries to handle the deceased’s remains. Lacking a memorial service or grave site, the Memorial Quilt was often the only opportunity survivors had to remember and celebrate their loved ones’ lives. The quilt panels, sent by people from all over the country, usually measured three by six feet—the size of a human grave. The panels are decorated with favorite songs, poems, pictures of the deceased, his or her friends and/or pets. (Id.)

The Memorial Quilt was first displayed in Washington DC on October 11, 1987, at which time it had 1,920 panels. Since 1987, it has grown to more than 48,000 panels that honor the lives of more than 94,000 people who have died of AIDS. Put end-to-end, the whole quilt would stretch more than 50 miles. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is too big to display all in one piece so its sections travel around the country for viewing. (Id.; “On World AIDS day, Valley Remembers Loved Ones,Arizona Republic, December 2, 2015, p. 10A.)

A spin-off of the Memorial Quilt project is the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt Songbook that contains “art songs” inspired by the experiences of those living, coping with, and dying from the disease. The original AIDS Quilt Songbook, consisting of 18 songs, premiered on July 4, 1992 in New York City at the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. There have been additions over the years, such as The Minnesota AIDS Quilt Songbook Additions, The Estate Project’s Additions (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1995; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1996-1998; Tacoma, Washington, 1999), and The Chicago AIDS Quilt Songbook Additions that premiered on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2008.

“QUILT, A Musical Celebration, is a theatrical production based on the Memorial Quilt project. It is a collage of stories for, from, and about The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. “QUILT” examines one 32-panel block of the Memorial Quilt in song and story. It is primarily about people who have created panels. Its structure is revue-like, with most characters appearing only once. But some characters and stories do recur and develop, giving the piece several simple through-lines. “QUILT” is about change; losses and gains. It looks at AIDS and its surrounding issues from many points of view. It celebrates life in the face of death. While it is based on real people and real situations, creative license has been used, and stories and events have been combined, shaped, and altered.

Similar is Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, a song cycle developed in the late 1980s with music by Janet Hood and lyrics and additional text by Bill Russell. It features songs and monologues inspired by the Memorial Quilt that reflect the emotions of those who lost loved ones to AIDS. It has been produced off-Broadway, in London and other places around the world. The show has been recorded and a sound track is available from Fynsworth Alley. Individual songs can be found on YouTube. Here is a sample:

An incredibly poignant song about the AIDS Memorial Quilt is “Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr., written by Tom Brown (1988). (

Jonathan Wesley Oliver Junior
Somebody told me
you would be here,
Fin’lly get to
say goodbye,
Jonathan Junior,
How many years have gone between us?

On the back porch,
making wishes,
Counting shooting stars.

I was scared of Indiana,
When we moved there I was ten.
There you were with your,
Freckle Face and I
Knew it right away:
That’s my friend!

Jonathan Wesley Oliver Junior,
Growing up must have
Sure been awful
All the things you,
Couldn’t say.

Couldn’t be easy
I can still hear your Dad and you fighting.
Something happened,
Unresolved and
Then you moved away.

I’ve been married
Nearly three years,
It’s amazing time goes on.
Had a baby girl,
Her name’s Jennifer
If we have a boy,
He’ll be John……

Somebody told me
you would be here

It was Jonathan Wesley Senior.

Picture your father
Writing your name with needle and thread.
You’d be laughing,
You’d be proud though,
It’s a real nice job.

I keep thinking,
Once you said,
“Something good can come from anything.”

Jonathan Wesley Oliver Junior
From Fifty Four to Eighty Seven

What’s it like John?
What’s in heaven?

Are there shooting stars?