"We tell people, `If you haven't seen it, don't come alone,"' said Leslie Mason, a volunteer for the quilt project. The sadness can be overwhelming. Each panel names at least one victim.
The quilt now includes more than 36,000 panels, and 8,000 more are expected to be added by Sunday. Each panel is the size of a grave. Yet beyond a graveyard's grief, it offers, to some visitors, a quilt's comfort.
The first panel, made in 1987, was a bed sheet, stenciled and spray-painted with stars and the name of a 33-year-old actor, Marvin Feldman. It was painted by his bereaved friend, Cleve Jones, a San Francisco activist.
Now, when the quilt is spread out in Washington from Friday through Sunday, it will cover the National Mall, stretching nearly a mile, from the foot of the Washington Monument to the foot of Capitol Hill.
While hundreds of thousands of people have seen parts of the quilt in smaller recent events around the country, this month's display in Washington will mark the first time in four years that the entire quilt has been spread out and shown. As many as 750,000 visitors are expected to attend.
This will be the quilt's fifth trip to Washington and the display will be accompanied by road races, fund-raisers, forums, a candlelight march and the reading of more than 70,000 names - the names of some of the 300,000 men, women and children who have already died as a result of AIDS in this country.
Reading the list, which is an important part of the quilt display, takes hours now. Ms. Mason remembers it seemed to take an eternity even the first time she stood and listened.
"After a while you forget you're hearing it, and after a while you start hearing it again. And think, `Oh, my God, they are still reading it. That endless list."'
Another half million people are now living with AIDS in the United States, say officials of the Names Project, sponsor of the quilt.
Rumors have abounded that the quilt has grown so large that this will be its last display. It takes a warehouse to store it now, and 10 train cars to move it. More than 1,000 people will help unfold it. But organizers insist that they will continue to show the quilt, despite logistical challenges, until a cure for AIDS is found.
Over the years, people have sent panels from all over the world, commemorating famous stars and indigents, lovers and strangers. The sick have made patches for themselves, and left them behind. Many who have lost someone to AIDS say they have found a powerful outlet for grief in composing and sewing a panel for the quilt, often at Names Project quilting centers around the country.
Some panels are elaborate works of art. Others are funny. Others are stunningly simple, even crude, the work of bereaved people who have never sewn before, but who have been led beyond what they know by grief.