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Detroit Memorial Honors The City's Victims Of The Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the most excruciating parts of the pandemic is that people often die alone. Loved ones have no chance to say goodbye. Often they can't even attend a funeral. Now the city of Detroit is holding a memorial for those lost. It's on an island in the Detroit River, which is also a state park. Laura Herberg reports from our member station WDET.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

LAURA HERBERG, BYLINE: A white hearse leads a funeral procession of cars across a bridge to Belle Isle Park. The daylong procession includes hundreds of cars and 15 empty hearses symbolizing the 1,500 Detroiters who've already died from COVID-19. As the vehicles cruise down the roadways of the island, they pass - one after another - poster-sized pictures of the deceased, nearly 1,000 portraits in all. Nykisha Mays is slowing down her car so that her kids can take a look.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mommy, all these people have coronavirus?

NYKISHA MAYS: Yeah, all these people had coronavirus, baby.

HERBERG: Mays says she's known people who died from the virus, but her family didn't come here for anyone in particular; rather, they're here for everyone.

MAYS: And we're trying to get through without crying. I don't know. We're trying to get through without crying. It's sad.

HERBERG: Rochelle Riley is the city's director of arts and culture and the lead organizer for this event. She hopes the unique memorial will help people to understand not just the lives that have been lost but the scale of the losses.

ROCHELLE RILEY: I think that some people are having a hard time seeing this because, unlike the Vietnam War where there were flag-draped coffins coming off of planes every day, they're not seeing it happen. People are dying alone in hospitals or in their homes, and they're just gone. They're just going away.

HERBERG: Detroit was an early hot spot in the pandemic and one of the first places to show the virus' disproportionate impact on people of color. The city is more than 80% African American, and nearly every person commemorated is Black. As seagulls fly overhead, Hope Cannady stands in front of a portrait of her mother, Marguerite (ph) Hemphill, who in the photo is wearing bright red lipstick and a blue dress with sparkles.

HOPE CANNADY: This is the closest that I'll ever get to a viewing because we had to have her cremated because of this. So this is all I got.

HERBERG: Ozie Pye IV owns a funeral home in Detroit. He says a citywide commemoration like this could help residents process the losses.

OZIE PYE: And I think that the whole city will kind of just breathe a sigh of relief, you know? And that is something that's really important that we all need to do because we've been through a lot in 2020.

HERBERG: Pye says death has a way of bringing people together, and it certainly is doing so here. So many people already tried to visit this memorial on Sunday that the 1-1/2-square-mile island hit maximum capacity. The commemoration continues through tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Herberg in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIGRAN HAMASYAN'S "LILAC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.