Providence Journal - Covid Memorial
North Kingstown to unveil memorial to local residents who died during the pandemic
Written by Tom Mooney for The Providence Journal
NORTH KINGSTOWN — Nancy Rafi spent a portion of each day during the last six weeks in the company of memories of more than 80 town residents who died in the pandemic.
Working from her art studio overlooking Wickford Harbor, she sewed a plain white flag for each person lost. When she began, there were about 52 deceased. As of Friday, there were 81.
As word has spread about Saturday’s commemoration of local victims of the coronavirus, about two dozen relatives or friends of those who died have asked Rafi to include photographs and the names and the dates of death on their loved one’s flag.
A few have even submitted a poem or a few words of remembrance, so Rafi has included those, too:
Bill Waldron, 71, Jan. 26, 2021. He loved to sail and enjoyed a secret clamming spot off Quonset Point;
Louis Pucino, 73, June 1, 2020. He ran the family towing and repair shop;
"Seeing the faces of the deceased has been very humbling,” says Rafi. “These were people in our community who we saw in church, who drove on our streets, who we stood behind at grocery stores.”
But for many of their families, the pandemic shutdown prevented the usual and vital community ritual of honoring the dead. Wakes and funerals were canceled; they could spread the virus.
Now as restrictions ease and people come together again, Rafi, with the help of a few other volunteers and the North Kingstown Arts Council, have created a way for this town of 26,000 to process its collective grief.
On Saturday evening, at least 81 white flags will flutter together, close to the ground, outside the Old Meeting House at Boone Street. The 7 p.m. public unveiling will be marked with music and candlelight and a few words from local people.
Rafi, who is a mixed-media artist, says she came up with the memorial idea after reading about memorials in a few Massachusetts communities.
Those memorials used empty chairs to commemorate the losses of life. She wanted something less morose, something that removed the anonymity of loss and replaced it with something more personal, tangible and literally moving.
She approached the North Kingstown Arts Council, which supported the project with a $1,500 grant, and Suzanne Mancini, owner of The Sew-op, the Wickford sewing store, who could supply the fabric.
“The arts council supported the project because we felt so many people have lost loved ones and never had the chance to grieve with their community,” says Nancy Sherman, who chairs the council. “We wanted to help provide that opportunity.”
“We do know that not only did people experience the horrific losses of loved ones, but they had no place to put it.”
When the pandemic struck last spring, Mancini’s sewing shop made “tons and tons of masks” for health-care workers, she says, “and for me personally it was helpful that I was contributing in some way.
“But so many folks were unable to be with their loved ones when they passed; funeral services were very limited and I feel there is a need for closure for so many people.”
In the rush now to normalcy, Mancini says, “I think we need to honor those who were lost.”
The installation of flags will be up for several months.
Rafi says she and her volunteers will continue to make flags at no cost to honor any North Kingstown resident who died. Anyone who would like to sponsor a flag, however, to help repay the art council’s grant can do so at: nkcovidmemorial.com
Friends or relatives of others who died during the pandemic but were not North Kingstown residents can submit their names to be included on a list at the unveiling ceremony.
“We're all walking wounded through the pandemic," says Rafi. "Literally every single person knows someone who died.”
And unfortunately, she says, she's had to consider spacing among the flags for others to come.