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How communities across the country are honoring COVID victims
Numbers — of cases, occupied hospital beds, ventilators, deaths — have been one way to show the unfathomable human toll of COVID-19 in the United States.
Ever since the novel coronavirus took hold in the U.S., health departments and political leaders and news reports have relied on data to herald the deadly risks and mark the latest grim milestone. Since July, the U.S. has led the world in COVID cases and deaths, with more than 400,000 people in the U.S. lost in total. And the numbers show how Black, Native and Latino communities bear the brunt of the disparities deepened by the virus.
The growing toll has often stood in sharp contrast to the way outgoing President Donald Trump has described the pandemic over the last year, in his attempts to paint a more rosy picture of the nation’s handle on the crisis. To date, there has been no official memorial effort by the U.S. government to commemorate the dead on a national scale.
In October, artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg planted a white flag for each life lost to COVID-19 on the grounds of the Washington Armory. At the time, the national death toll was at 212,000. Firstenberg said she felt she had to step in and do something to mark the moment after she read how a government official had dismissed the death toll.
“I thought, ‘No, no, it’s not just a statistic,” she told the PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown. “I’ve been a hospice volunteer for 25 years. I know that every single one of those lives lost was precious to someone.”
Her temporary art installation, as is the case with the many makeshift memorials that have emerged throughout the pandemic, sought to remind people not only of the immense scale of loss, but also emphasize the individual. People were able to personalize the flags by writing down the names. Others left messages. On one flag, next to a heart drawn in black, permanent marker, it read, “I love you dad.”
“Now is the time to not lose sight of the value of the individual,” she said, adding that a memorial to COVID victims needs to “have space for the individual while also honoring the scope.”
From tiny flags to empty chairs, here’s how different communities in the U.S. are memorializing the victims of the pandemic.
Flags of many colors
In September, the COVID Memorial Project
In May, artist Shane Reilly planted a flag in his front yard in Austin, Texas, for every Texan who died from the virus. The array of flags — orange, pink, red and white, purchased at Lowe’s and Home Depot — has since ballooned to more than 23,000 flags. Reilly is looking to turn the display into a permanent tribute.
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The flag display in Texas also inspired Cindy Pollock to make her own flag memorial in her yard in Boise Idaho, using orange flags from Lowe’s.
“Almost every morning when I put in each flag, I whisper a little blessing, saying, ‘May you be at peace,'” she told the Idaho Statesman.
Firstenberg’s white flags are no longer on display in D.C., but she’s currently working with George Washington University’s anthropology department to create a digitized recreation of her art installation.
She told the NewsHour that she hesitates to call her installation a memorial at this moment “because you don’t memorialize a plane crash in the middle of it crashing.”
“But in time, I think we will find a magnificent way to honor all of our losses and to allow this to be a real pivot point in who we are as a country,” she added.
A familiar piece of music for mourning
Washington state’s Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” as a musical tribute to COVID victims. Video by PBS NewsHour
In a musical tribute to COVID victims this past weekend, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Washington state performed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” a piece of music often associated with mourning.
Executive director Igor Shakhman said in an email that the piece, which begins with a single B flat, was dedicated to COVID victims because the “pandemic has been unyielding in its scope, in tragedy and loss.”
“We grieve for those who parted too soon and mourn with those who were left behind,” he added.
The classical work has been played at Albert Einstein’s funeral, in honor of President John F. Kennedy after he was assassinated, and over the radio when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death was announced. Aside from also appearing throughout various film and TV projects, it has also become a source of inspiration for electronic music producers.
Aug. 31 will now be known as “Detroit Memorial Day” for the city.
Announced by Mayor Mike Duggan, the event was a citywide commemoration of those lost to COVID. Relatives of COVID victims gathered to form funeral processions that drove past about 900 enlarged photos of their loved ones, lined up along the streets of Belle Isle Park. At that time, COVID had claimed the lives of about 1,500 Detroiters.
Detroit Arts and Culture director Rochelle Riley, who led the effort behind the memorial, said she and the mayor talked about how they hoped that “no one could look at that many photographs that didn’t even represent all of the dead and not see the human toll.”
On the airwaves, public radio station WRCJ 90.9 FM broadcasted a collection of gospel, jazz and classical music, providing a soundtrack of mourning for the rest of the city. Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Samuel Barber, among others, appeared on the day’s playlist.
Riley said when the city asked families to submit photos for the display, there was an array of responses. Some were funny. One was a wedding photo. Allowing families to choose the photos allowed them “to see [their loved ones] in the last way that they really wanted to remember them and love them in a special moment.”
Families were later given the square photos, 4 feet by 4 feet in size, used in the commemoration.
“We didn’t want people to hide their grief,” Riley said. “We wanted people to lean in a bit to know that we felt it with them and to encourage people to live a life of purpose on behalf of those folks that are gone.”
Thousands of empty chairs to mark loss
In October, 20,000 empty chairs faced the White House in Washington, D.C., representing the more than 200,000 victims COVID had claimed. Weeks later, the nonprofit Marked by COVID used white chairs to capture the scope of loss in Phoenix, each cradling a lit candle. And ahead of the holidays, hundreds of chairs were arranged on the Capitol grounds in Pierre, South Dakota, in the same spirit.
Organized by the community group Stop the Spread South Dakota, the black chairs represented the more than 800 lives lost to COVID in the state. Organizers consulted with the Rev. Robert Two Bulls, an Episcopal canon in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on how to make sure the arrangement also reflected Indigenous communities.
Tribal nations have been hit hard by the pandemic. And, in South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe sparred with state government over measures taken — and not taken — during the pandemic. Organizers arranged the chairs so that they faced each of the four main points on a compass — north, south, east, west. When Lakotas pray, they pray to the Four Directions, Two Bulls said.
Two Bulls, who grew up in South Dakota, said the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota tribe, has lost several of its elders, including his 87-year-old aunt, who died in early December.
As a priest, Two Bulls said there isn’t enough talk, broadly, about those who are grieving family — spouses, partners, or whoever else.
“It’s a needless death [that] could have been prevented. If the response [from people in national leadership] was different, we wouldn’t be in the place we’re in today,” he said.
Pastor Matthew Spoden, who was asked to read a prayer at the event, said he wrestled with how to best say the prayer because he wanted to honor everyone. That meant honoring the people who died from COVID and people who have been experiencing loneliness, isolation or struggling with mental health issues throughout the pandemic. That meant to acknowledge the small businesses trying to stay afloat as well.
Addressing anyone watching the live stream that day, the pastor told his audience that “all of us in the state of South Dakota, and in this nation, are hurting.”
“But it’s because of this collective pain that I implore you to not give up. I refuse to give into anger or apathy because I’m compelled to move forward in hope,” he said.
Luminarias that glow in tribute
On Christmas Eve, artist Sonia Gutiérrez put together 212 luminarias, or paper lanterns weighed down by sand, to represent the 212 lives lost to COVID-19 in Arkansas’ Washington County at that time. Each luminaria, lit up by a single LED light inside, brightened up an eight-block stretch in her Fayetteville neighborhood.
Gutiérrez said she quietly said a prayer she wrote, which in part echoed the Lord’s Prayer — a nod to her Catholic upbringing. “We lift up your soul, celebrate it, and honor it today and always,” is how each of her prayers ended.
Gutierrez said she was hoping to create a “healing and restful space” to commemorate the lives lost, in a period when the pandemic has disrupted our ability to connect with one another while grieving.
Luminarias have deep roots in Hispanic culture. New Mexicans, particularly, have long created impressive displays of paper lanterns, also known as farolitos, lining streets and walkways during Christmastime. This year, preparing for a more silent night due to the pandemic, people in Santa Fe and Albuquerque made farolitos to keep the holiday tradition alive.
In Atlanta, a coalition of community leaders and organizations drew awareness to the toll the pandemic has taken on the city by putting up more than 5,000 broken hearts — one for each Georgian lost to the virus at that time — outside the National Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown. The installation, called “Loved Ones, Not Numbers,” was also, in part, meant to be a strong message to Gov. Brian Kemp to enforce a mask mandate.
The Georgia Coalition 2 Save Lives released a video in late December — when the death toll doubled to more than 10,000 — to reiterate the continued heartbreak behind each death.
Four more hearts have been added to the City Memorial Walls, in memory of the 65 Edina residents who have lost their…
In Edina, Minnesota, city officials have been putting up a gold heart at City Hall and a nearby shopping center for each resident who has died from the virus. Online, the city has a digital memorial “wall” for residents to share tributes to loved ones.
“Behind every COVID-19 statistic is a person. Someone’s grandfather. Your favorite teacher from years past,” the site reads.
Digital memorial “walls”
The City, a nonprofit news outlet in New York City, launched an online memorial a few months into the pandemic, in the hopes of adding human stories and faces to the numbers of deaths that kept climbing. The project is searchable online, and The City keeps tabs of how many names it still needs to log. As of early January, The City says the database covers about 7.6 percent of the more than 25,000 confirmed deaths in New York City.
The project has inspired a St. Louis, Missouri, resident about 950 miles away to do something similar for her city. Jessica Murray launched her website stlouiscovidmemorial.com this summer to document as many of the lives lost to COVID in the St. Louis area.
“It’s not just the people that make the news that are worth stopping and honoring, it’s the people who have Alzheimer’s disease that die alone in a nursing home. It’s the husband who is forced to die without his wife by his side,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They all had people who loved them.”
The PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown and Maea Lenei Buhre contributed to this report.
Correction: A photo caption for this story originally used an incorrect number. Each chairs used in a D.C. memorial to COVID victims represented 10 — not 1,000 — deaths from the pandemic.