COVID-19 memorial with thousands of flags opens on RI State House lawn to honor lives lost

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PROVIDENCE — The more than 3,000 Rhode Islanders lost to COVID-19 were memorialized Saturday with a display of thousands of white flags on the State House lawn and a ceremony that opened a week during which the flags will remain in place — available for loved ones and friends to sign in remembrance of those who have died.

The display, a striking juxtaposition of wind-swept white against the lush green of early-summer grass and trees, was created by artist Suzanne Firstenberg, who designed the “In America: Remember” installation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. By the time the installation closed, more than 700,000 white flags had been placed in the nation’s capital in memory of Americans who died during the pandemic.

Thousands of white flags mark the State House lawn during Saturday's opening of a week-long remembrance of Rhode Islanders lost to COVID.
Thousands of white flags mark the State House lawn during Saturday's opening of a week-long remembrance of Rhode Islanders lost to COVID.

“This art is meant to call attention to the immense loss of life that has happened because of COVID and to bring us an opportunity to grieve together,” Firstenberg said in an interview with The Providence Journal before the ceremony began.

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“We are so divided now, but there's one thing we're together in, and that is grief. We have all suffered from COVID, from this pandemic, whether it's the loss of life of a loved one, loss of a job, of income or educational opportunities. This gives us a chance to reflect.”

Artist Suzanne Firstenberg, designer of the COVID memorial flag display.
Artist Suzanne Firstenberg, designer of the COVID memorial flag display.

“Everybody's been touched by the pandemic,” said the Rev. Eugene Dyszlewski, president of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, the multifaith group that brought the installation to Rhode Island. “In the early days, people were not able to be with their loved one when they died. It was difficult to memorialize anyone or do a funeral, because we couldn't gather, there couldn't be more than five or six people. A lot of the usual kind of steps in mourning were missing. And so this is another mourning opportunity. Perhaps a healing opportunity for people.”

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During his remarks, Sen. Jack Reed said: “This memorial is a touching tribute to those we have lost in Rhode Island. Each of these flags represents a friend, a neighbor, a parent, a grandparent. We carry them in our hearts. And we have a responsibility to shape a brighter future in America. We must lift up those who have suffered during this pandemic and do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and also do our part to ensure an equitable and just society.”

Said Dr. Michael Fine: "Much of this pandemic was preventable. In other advanced nations like Australia and New Zealand, the death rate was about one tenth of ours. In Taiwan and Japan, the death rate was one fifteenth of ours. If only we had come together and battled this virus as one people, we would be here morning 300 or 360 people -- a sad enough day, but not 3,605.

"The pandemic was a warning -- a reminder that we are desperately interdependent on each other. We need each other. And we need to protect our democracy."

Rhode Island's COVID-19 death milestones are listed on a display on the State House steps.
Rhode Island's COVID-19 death milestones are listed on a display on the State House steps.

During the coming week, Rhode Islanders are invited to visit the memorial and write an inscription on one of the white flags. Sharpie pens and informational materials will be available. According to Bradley Hospital’s Margaret R. Paccione, clerics from many faiths have been trained in counseling and will be available on a rotating basis to assist visitors who may want to discuss their grief.

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The display concludes with a closing ceremony at 7 p.m. on July 2 “during which we are inviting firefighters and first responders from the individual towns and cities of Rhode Island to gather the flags for their individual towns and cities,” according to the Council of Churches.

Among the others speaking on Saturday were Firstenberg, Dyszlewski, the Rev. Effie McAvoy, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and the Rev. Chontell N. Washington.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: COVID memorial with thousands of flags opens on RI State House lawn