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Projects Across The U.S. Memorialize Coronavirus Victims


As the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19 approaches 100,000, people are creating new ways to memorialize the dead since collective public mourning is no longer an option. Here's NPR's Melissa Block.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: To honor those who died from COVID-19, perhaps the most essential gesture is simply to say their names.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: John Fusco, John Gavern, John Gentile...

BLOCK: This was a 24-hour virtual vigil called Naming the Lost streamed live online last week. Naming the dead has become a familiar ritual in other national tragedies, a recitation usually voiced in large, cathartic, public gatherings. This time, the names were read by people sitting alone in kitchens and bedrooms, looking into a webcam.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Donnell Eugene Trotman (ph), 39 years old, Staten Island.

BLOCK: Meanwhile, in Southern California...

ANNE GUYNN: I'm looking at a walnut tree covered with strings of paper hearts that are kind of fluttering in the wind.

BLOCK: This past weekend Anne Guynn went out into her family's walnut orchard and climbed up into that tree. Over the months, she's draped one paper heart for each of the nearly 4,000 Californians who have died from COVID-19, a brilliant rainbow of garlands.

GUYNN: The wind has blown a lot of the hearts off, and so they're scattered throughout the orchard. And I'll find little colored hearts everywhere. We'll be harvesting for years to come, and we'll see hearts come through our harvesting plant, which will be a reminder of what we've all been through.

BLOCK: Anne Guynn says she's committed to keep stringing those hearts for as long as we keep losing people to the virus.


ROBIN BELL: Yeah. We're turning on the projection, and this is the moment we're kind of live.

BLOCK: The other night in Washington, D.C., video artist Robin Bell fired up a projector, sending a beam of light out of his apartment window. And suddenly, projected onto the brick wall of a Subway sandwich shop across the street, there appeared the words COVID memorial - below them, a slideshow of faces of COVID-19 victims that flashed into the night and vanished.

DUNCAN MEISEL: I think there's something powerful about sharing those stories in public off the Internet that lends them a little more concreteness than just another post, you know? We're drowning in posts right now.

BLOCK: Drowning in numbers, too, says Duncan Meisel - all those coronavirus statistics and graphs. He started this project out of his bedroom in Austin, Texas.

MEISEL: In any other sort of major national crisis, we would have a chance to mourn together. Whether it's been a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, people can get together. They can lay flowers. They can light candles. And people are searching for ways to make sense of what is an extremely traumatic event.

BLOCK: When Normina Nicotra heard about Meisel's project, she submitted this tribute to her mother, Amihilda Menina, a registered nurse for more than 50 years. She died of COVID-19 at age 76.


NORMINA NICOTRA: My mother died alone. It hurts me to think that she died with no one holding her hand the way she always held mine.

BLOCK: With so much attention on coronavirus numbers, Nicotra worries the human toll is being obscured.

NICOTRA: Especially as people are sitting at home getting restless and are so anxious for the economy to open back up again, I feel like she might be getting lost in a number.

BLOCK: Now as we approach 100,000 deaths, she can't stop thinking, what if the country had sheltered in place right away?

NICOTRA: I think about all those unnecessary deaths and all the families that didn't get to say goodbye to their loved ones, and I think it's a failure. I think it's 100,000 completely preventable deaths.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Freddy Diaz, Lies Fontanez, Jimel Alvarado...

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Jamile Valente, Jose Grisales, Concepcion Silvio... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

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