A borough wept. A borough healed.
Over 7,000 Queens residents have perished to COVID-19, and on May 1st a fraction of those lost were represented within a cultural center they will never enjoy again.
The Forest Park Bandshell was constructed with human life in mind, an artistic focal point from where spectators assemble in benches and marvel at the talents of others. But during the Queens COVID Remembrance Day (QCRD) on Saturday these benches were void of the life they were built for, instead serving to facilitate a makeshift funeral service many were deprived of during the height of pandemic. The center row of chairs stretched into the bandshell’s wide berth, each one harboring a painting representing an absent life, and, on the outskirts, sat still grieving family members.
This memorialization of the dead and celebration of lives led was organized by the QCRD committee and intended to aid in the ongoing healing process. With countless unable to say goodbye to their loved ones due to hospital restrictions and protocols, the afternoon functioned as a way for families to both grieve together and heal together.
The opening ceremony was ticketed and exclusively intended for the deceased’s kin. Attendees arrived just before 1pm, bringing bouquets of flowers and framed photographs. Some held each other’s hands, others gripped one another’s shoulders, but all carried with them an unspoken understanding that the day would be an emotionally taxing one. As the first speaker and co-organizer Brian Walter took to the stage and spoke about his own loss, it ushered in a wave of grief, and a deluge of tears.
“A year ago today marked the halfway point in my father’s fight against COVID. I took him to the hospital on April 22nd and the monster would take him from us on May 10th. Our COVID story is like many of yours: Zoom calls, roller-coaster rides of updates from doctors, and the constant unknown of what was coming next, and in the end a heartbreaking loss of a life that should never have been taken,” Walter told onlookers.
Walter was flanked on stage by fellow committee members and elected officials such as Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Senator Joe Addabbo, Congresswoman Grace Meng, and Assembly member Jenifer Rajkumar. Draped behind them hung a curtain of yellow hearts inscribed with more names of those lost to the deadly virus. Before their speeches, speakers stood in solemn reflection of the names, each mother, daughter, son, father, sister, and brother lost to time and memory. With a drape of bereavement behind him and a sea of sorrow ahead of him, it was clear this monumental loss affected the way in which Donovan Richards addressed attendees.
“I am deeply sorry to hear of each and every one of your losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why we are here to mourn, to reflect, to remember, to offer comfort,” Richards began with 30 seconds of silence. Citing racial and gender disparities, Richards continued: “We lost far too many due to these inequities which plague our systems and institutions. These deaths were preventable, those deaths were systematic failures, not the science or the challenges of the crisis alone—we were not prepared,” Richards said.
Once the opening ceremony concluded, family members carried the weight of their losses to the seats holding the depictions of their loved ones where they paid their respects by laying flowers and sitting beside the hand drawn illustrations. But this act proved too much for many. Attendees broke down, shedding tears, clasping fellow survivors in agony.
The Queens COVID Remembrance Day lasted until 8pm and finished with sunset vigil.