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A Celebration Of Life, For All The Vermonters Who Have Died Of COVID-19

A photo of the Vermont Statehouse, made of white marble and a gold dome, against a clear blue sky
Ric Cengeri
/
VPR File
This Sunday at 3 p.m., on the Statehouse lawn in Montpelier, clergy from various faiths will recite the names of all Vermonters who've died of COVID-19.

Faith leaders across the state are inviting Vermonters to the Statehouse lawn Sunday for a celebration of life of all Vermonters who’ve died of COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had claimed 291 lives in Vermont. In many cases, it’s also robbed their loved ones of an opportunity to mourn the loss.

Clergy of various faiths, however, hope a mass memorial to honor the dead will help Vermonters process the trauma the pandemic has caused.

“Losing someone this way is extremely difficult, because not only is the person going through this alone, but the family members are going through it alone as well,” said Kris Owens, who lost her father to COVID-19 in March of 2020.

Owens’ father, David Reissig, was 82 when he died. And Owens said he lived a good life.

“Losing someone this way is extremely difficult, because not only is the person going through this alone, but the family members are going through it alone as well.
Kris Owens, who lost her father to COVID-19 in March of 2020

But she said she and her siblings and their mom couldn’t be with him during his final days at Northwest Vermont Medical Center, in St. Albans. And they couldn’t give him the sendoff they would’ve liked.

So when Owens and her mom heard about the celebration of life this Sunday in Montpelier, for every Vermonter who’s died of COVID-19, Owens rearranged some travel plans in order to attend.

For her mom especially, Owens said, it’s a chance to honor her husband in a way that the pandemic wouldn’t allow.

“I think that she’s ready to sort of feel like she wants to see my father’s life celebrated on a bigger scale,” she said.

More from VPR: COVID-19 Killed More Than 200 Vermonters

Sunday’s COVID memorial was born of pandemic introspection by an employee at Grace Cottage Hospital, named CJ King.

“You know, I sat in front of the news every night and watched the numbers go up, and just felt horrified and helpless, and just wished there was something I could do," King said.

King’s perspective on that horror is somewhat unique: As the pandemic was unfolding, she happened to be taking a class at Hartford Seminary, in Connecticut, on how to serve as chaplain during a time of disaster.

“So through the eyes of those studies, it was important to think about: How do we help each other spiritually through these horribly difficult times? And reflecting on that is part of the inspiration of how I got this idea,” she said.

That idea is to memorialize lives lost to COVID by way of an interfaith gathering on the Statehouse lawn. And on Sept. 19, at 3 p.m., clergy from various religions will gather in Montpelier to sing, pray, meditate, and recite the names of the Vermonters who died as a result of contracting COVID-19.

“I wanted to remember that each of these represents a whole human being and a life and circle of friends and family,” King said.

“I wanted to remember that each of these [deaths] represents a whole human being, and a life and circle of friends and family."
CJ King, who had the idea to hold a memorial for Vermonters who have died from COVID-19

Vermont Interfaith Action has taken on the lead role for organizing the event.

“I think we’re all grieving and mourning in different ways, and we hope that this will be an event that can help people to process whatever they’re going through at this time,” said Debbie Ingram, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action.

“It’s a little counterintuitive, because running an interfaith organization, I’ve been told many times that Vermont is actually one of the least-churched states in the union,” Ingram said.

A survey by Pew Research found that Vermonters are among the least likely in the nation to say that religion is very important in their lives, or that they believe in God with absolute certainty.

More from Brave Little State: What's The State Of Religion In Vermont?

But Ingram said participation in the memorial doesn’t require faith in the almighty.

“So what we really want to concentrate on is honoring and paying respects to those who are no longer with us, and acknowledging that we feel sadness because of that,” she said.

Ingram said it’ll also be an opportunity for people to have the kind of in-person memorial that they couldn’t happen during the height of pandemic.

Over the past 20 months, she said, most of the services her church has conducted have happened on Zoom.

“The services that we’ve had have been very severely affected by the pandemic and the protocols for keeping everyone safe,” Ingram said.

And CJ King says the memorial isn’t just for those whose lives have been touched personally by a COVID death.

“And my idea is that by collectively coming together and acknowledging each individual person, that we help rebuild community, we help the healing process,” she said.

“So what we really want to concentrate on is honoring and paying respects to those who are no longer with us, and acknowledging that we feel sadness because of that."
Debbie Ingram, Vermont Interfaith Action executive director

State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso will be among the people participating in the memorial.

When Vermont Interfaith asked if she’d be willing to attend, Kelso said she immediately realized the value of the event.

“I think it’s a really good idea to give Vermonters a time to just pause for a minute and reflect on what these last 20 months have been,” Kelso said.

For Kelso, acknowledging the human cost of the pandemic is part of the fight against it.

“These deaths are really the reason we’re working as hard as we are to prevent as many of them as we can,” she said.

And she said an outdoor memorial is a safe way to do it.

“I don’t have any concerns about this gathering from an [epidemiological] perspective,” Kelso said. “Outdoor gathering is pretty safe with the number of people vaccinated in Vermont.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

Updated: September 17, 2021 at 2:39 PM EDT
The headline for this story has been updated to clarify the celebration of life ceremony will be held for the Vermonters who have died from COVID-19 so far.
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