How will America memorialize the victims of COVID-19? Two stone benches and a granite memorial placed in the middle of a Jewish cemetery outside Boston provide one possible answer.
The markers, placed by the the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts and dedicated last July, are among the country’s very first memorial’s to the pandemic’s victims — if not the first.
“I’m grateful that there’s a memorial for us to go to sit,” said Lisa Berenson, JCAM’s director of educational programming and development. “It’s just a place for people to gather and reflect. It’s still a comfort.”
JCAM dedicated the memorial as well as two benches at the Sons of Abraham Cemetery at the end of the Baker Street Memorial Park in Beverly, Massachusetts in honor of people who died during the pandemic.
The first bench is dedicated to those who died without family present or around to mourn them.
“In honor of those we’ve lost for whom there was no one to say Kaddish may their memory always be a blessing,” reads the memorial’s engraving— a reminder to those who could not have family and friends with them and those who had to die alone.
“There was no one there. There was no one for them,” JCAM Executive Director Jamie Cotel said. “We have a tradition at JCAM to go to the grave and pay our respects.”
The second bench is in honor of the cemetery caretakers, whom Cotel calls the “last responders.” The bench engraving reads, “In honor of our dedicated caretakers, the last responders who unselfishly performed the ultimate act of loving kindness.”
“There’s a lot of stories on the bench for our caretakers that no one thinks about,” Cotel said. “Everyone thinks of the first responders. We’re the ones they have at the end.”
The memorial is for anyone, Cotel said, including those who did not die during the pandemic period due to COVID-19.
“It’s very important to me that it’s JCAM’s gift to the community,” Cotel said. “Because everyone has to be so careful during the pandemic, people haven’t seen their loved ones for possibly months.”
The memorial, which was made possible by the donation of Slotnick Monuments Principal Stevel Schneider, is the first of its kind in Massachusetts and possibly also within the country. It reads “In memory of those lost during the COVID-19 pandemic ‘And the People Mourned as One Community.”
The memorial, like the disease, struck close to home. Berenson lost her brother to COVID-19. He died alone, quarantined for his own safety and that of his family. “It was so difficult to know I couldn’t do anything to aid his loneliness and his pain,” said Berenson.
Berenson’s brother passed away November 5 in a nursing facility in Rhode Island. He left behind his wife and two adult children as well as Berenson and her family.
Throughout its 125 cemeteries, JCAM has had to bury almost triple the amount of people than normal these past few months, according to Cotel.
“We tried to stay in line with what Governor Baker has required, but we’ve also had to impose our own restrictions,” Cotel said. “There’s so much pain and suffering and trauma within the community, and I felt like it was important for there to be a space for people to go.”
Funerals have been crowd controlled, with only 25 people allowed to congregate around the grave at a time, ensuring six-foot social distancing. People wear masks. Some honor those that passed from their cars or by standing outside of the cemeteries. Others Zoom or Facetime in. Rituals have had to be rethought, such as shoveling dirt onto the casket.
“Because of cross contamination issues, we’ve had a lot of sanitization and asking people to bring their own shovels,” Cotel said, adding that people have used Ziploc bags, their hands, a shovel from home, or even a bucket of dirt from their own gardens. “We always try to do what we do with kindness.”
JCAM provides extra masks, gloves, as well as shovels to ensure the safety of everyone present.
Other traditional aspects of funerals have had to be rethought, like when a veteran was laid to rest. “Taps” was played from a recorded video. The honor guard still folded the flag, but they had to hand it to the family with gloves and extra precautions.
JCAM also ensures that everyone has a proper and respectful burial, even if the family does not have the means to do so.
“We always donate graves and resources for people who cannot afford it and a burial,” Cotel said. “There were a lot of people like that during the pandemic. We made sure they have a proper and respectful burial.”
The memorial and benches are there to provide additional comfort to the family and friends of COVID-19 victims.
“The world is broken right now,” Cotel said. “We try to do our part to help.”
Memorial to COVID-19 victims and ‘last responders’