Remembering the Human Toll of Covid-19

Harvard Memorial Church Fall 2020The bell in the steeple of the Memorial Church will ring Sunday in remembrace of those lost to the pandemic. Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.

By Jeffrey Blackwell
Memorial Church Communications

The bell of Memorial Church will ring 22 times following services on Sunday, each strike a solemn remembrance for every 10,000 Americans, and every 50,000 or more worldwide, who have lost their lives to Covid-19. (See Commemoration here)

By the end of last week, the number of deaths in the U.S. reached 223,000, with more than 8.4 million cases reported since the pandemic began in March. Across the globe, more than 1.14 million people have lost their lives to the novel coronavirus.

With the numbers of new cases again surging here and elsewhere, the call to honor the lives of those who have died from the devastating pandemic is not only a moral responsibility, but also a renewed message to fight against the spread of the deadly virus by wearing masks, washing hands, and practicing social distancing, Harvard faith community leaders say.

“We have not yet been offered a way to mourn as a nation the loss of those who have died from COVID-19. It’s important for institutions to step into this void,” said Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in the Harvard Divinity School. “When we mourn together, we care for each other; we share the work of grief and remembrance. Knowing that, we are more likely to remember that we are in each other’s, care and perhaps more likely to do what we must do to keep each other safe.”

Memorial Church BellThe bell in the steeple of Memorial Church will ring beginning at 12:15 p.m., accompanied by an online commemoration on the church website and YouTube channel with remarks from University President Larry Bacow, Paulsell, Harvard Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, and other campus faith leaders.

“The times we face require healing and hope for us all,” said Abdur-Rashid. “Perhaps we may take some comfort in the fact that while we have lost so many, there is still hope ahead. In my religious tradition we are constantly reminded that with every difficulty comes ease."

The Memorial Church is also inviting members of the Harvard community to share the names and photographs of loved ones who have lost their lives to COVID-19. The names and photos collected through this form will be shared virtually as part of the commemoration Sunday (Nov.1), and afterward online.

With the exception of the grim release of daily death and case statistics by the media and government agencies, organized commemorations have been sporadic and scattered. The New York Times published the names of the first 100,000 people to die of COVID-19 on its front page a few months ago. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., tolled its bell 200 times, once for each 1,000 deaths, last month. But in the divisive politics connected to the crisis, a national morning has yet to materialize.

Abhishek Raman, M.Div. ’17, M.P.A. ’18, a proctor at the College, participated in event at the National Cathedral and approached Memorial Church leadership about a similar commemoration at Harvard.

“Abhishek told us that the solemn sound of the bell helped him feel the reality of those deaths in my body,” Paulsell said. “We need rituals that help us feel theseProf. Stephanie Paulsell losses in our bodies so that we remember that these unimaginably high numbers are not just numbers; they represent lives, relationships, families, worlds.”

This Sunday, several Harvard chaplains and members of the wider faith community plan to offer prayers and remembrances for those who have died, been stricken, or faced challenges because of the pandemic.

“In the Roman Catholic tradition, praying for the dead is one of the ‘spiritual works of mercy’ since bonds of love are eternal,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Fiorillo, undergraduate chaplain, Harvard Catholic Center. “For the victims of the COVID pandemic, and indeed any tragic event, praying for the dead keeps those bonds of love active and obtains eternal rest for them. In a particular way in this time we should also remember those who died isolated from family and those who may be forgotten in the eyes of the world. May our prayers allow us all to be reunited in peace with them one day.”

Sunday evening services at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard will be focused on people who lost their lives to Covid-19. Churchgoers will hang objects to mark those lives in the sacred tent, an outdoor worship space behind the church.

Members of the University Lutheran Church are planning Sunday to place electric votive candles in the star magnolia tree by the front steps of the church, one for every 10,000 victims.

“The tree has also become a place for prayers to be held. For example, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, paper peace doves were hung in its branches,” said Kathleen O'Keefe Reed, the Lutheran pastor at Harvard. “After the Pulse nightclub shooting, prayers of lament were written on vinyl tears attached to the branches. Returning to this tree felt right for our community’s expressions of grief and remembrance of lives being lost to COVID-19.”

The pandemic is reaching deep into the lives of most Americans. It is especially devastating to our most venerable citizens. Many families are morning the loss of a loved one, lost jobs, or are dealing with stress, depression and seclusion.

Harvard Yard Masks SignNational health officials are predicting difficult times ahead as this unrelenting virus spreads to new areas, and as cold weather sets into regions already hard hit by the pandemic. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, is also warning that the traditional family gatherings of the holiday season could spike new outbreaks.

Paulsell said in such a time, it is important to care for one another and to reach out to those who need help, support, or just conversation. In remembering each life lost, we acknowledge that we are each in the care of another, she said.

“There’s a lot of pandemic fatigue — I feel it myself, very much,” said Paulsell. “But we’ve got to keep distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands in order to protect each other — and finding ways to reach other to one another across the distances that separate us, especially as we get closer to the winter months.”


– Additional resources on our Bereavement and Grief Page –