NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — If these were ordinary times, they would not have had to mourn their dead alone.
There are slightly more than 26,000 residents in this community, and dozens of deaths in a little over a year wouldn’t have gone unmentioned.
But the pandemic prevented people from holding services to honor someone’s passing. It has left mourners feeling isolated, and the rest of the community either unknowing about their loss or helpless to offer comfort.
This Saturday evening, an art installation of white flags, each representing one of the more than 80 residents who’ve died of COVID-19, will be unveiled in a ceremony of candlelight, music, and speeches to honor their memories.
Local artist Nancy Rafi said she was inspired to create the installation after seeing how other municipalities throughout the country have established their own memorials. In Massachusetts, the cities of Lawrence, Newton, and Plymouth all assembled empty chairs in commemoration.
Rafi had a different idea. Instead of chairs, the lawn of the Old Meeting House in North Kingstown will be covered with white flags. “I like the idea of flags fluttering in the wind to symbolize the vibrancy of the lives lost,” she said.
Suzanne Mancini, owner of The-Sew-Op cooperative sewing space, provided the Sunbrella material. To her, the lightness of the fabric represents purity. “And it has an impact when you see it,” Mancini said. “I think this will help other communities process this.”
The North Kingstown Arts Council gave a $1,500 grant to the project, because it wanted to mark how the pandemic had an impact on the town, said chairwoman Nancy Sherman. “One reason the memorial is so important is that COVID did exist,” she said.
And, this may be the first time that the people in the community will be able to gather together, safely, since the pandemic, Rafi said.
When the project began a few months ago, Rafi was sewing flags for about 50 residents who’d died. By Tuesday, the number of deaths had climbed to 81.
“Everybody knows someone who lost someone,” Rafi said.
As word spread about the project, Rafi said, she heard from people in the community who wanted their loved ones honored. “People are feeling really isolated with their grief,” Rafi said. “They’re just stuck, with no one to talk to.”
A hospice nurse also connected Rafi with nursing homes where North Kingstown natives died. “She was saying, ‘The people have been kind of waiting for this,’” Rafi said.
Every resident who has died will be represented by a simple white flag. Rafi will add the names and photos of each victim if requested by their loved ones.
So, there are flags for 73-year-old Louis and 93-year-old Grace, and for Ronald and Joseph, who both died at age 85, and many others.
The rest of the flags will remain blank, but will speak for themselves, Rafi said. “They are empty, because you don’t know how many people, so many people, are carrying this silently,” she said.
The ceremony will be held June 5 at 7 p.m. on the lawn of the Old Meeting House on Boone Street, North Kingstown. The art installation is expected to remain for several months. To have a memorial flag created for free for a loved one who was lost to COVID-19 and a resident of North Kingstown, reach out on the COVID Memorial website, at https://www.nkcovidmemorial.com. Those who were not town residents will be included on a memorial board at the ceremony.