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1,500 Detroiters Dead: Belle Isle Memorial Attendees Reflect On Human Loss

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Image credit: Laura Herberg / WDET

Many COVID-19 victims die alone or their families are unable to be near the body due to the infectious disease. The Belle Isle citywide memorial offers a chance to say goodbye.

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In Detroit there’s a city-wide memorial service being held at Belle Isle to commemorate the lives of residents who died from COVID-19.  

The day-long procession includes hundreds of cars and fifteen empty hearses symbolizing the 1500 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 one thousand portraits in all. 

We’re trying to get through it without crying. I don’t know. We’re trying to get through without crying. It’s sad.” — Nykisha Mays, attendee

Skylar Herbert died from COVID-19 at the age of 5. She was the first Michigan child to die from the virus.Laura Herberg / WDET
Laura Herberg / WDET

Skylar Herbert died from COVID-19 at the age of 5. She was the first Michigan child to die from the virus.

Detroit was an early hotspot 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 percent African American and it feels like nearly every person commemorated is Black.  

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,” says Rochelle Riley,  the City’s Director of Arts and Culture and the lead organizer for this event. “People are dying alone in hospitals or in their homes, and they’re just gone.”

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 giving them a way to honor the COVID-19 dead. 

Listen: WDET’s Laura Herberg reports on reactions from memorial attendees. Read more remembrances below.


Remembrances 

Laura Herberg / WDET
Laura Herberg / WDET

Nora Jean Elizabeth Gribble

Rashad Gribble holds his young daughter as he looks at a picture of his mother, Nora Gribble, taken decades ago, back when she was young.

I look like her, that’s what everybody says,” says Gribble. “Out of all my mom’s kids, I’m that one that really looked like her.”

The resemblance is striking.

Nora Gribble was at the hospital for a month and a half, unable to see family, before she passed away there in April. Gribble’s daughter, with her arms around his neck, gently speaks. “Daddy, that’s grandma” she says.

She’s asleep,” Gribble replies.

Mildred Hill

Korey Hill has come to visit his mother’s picture with a bottle of Champagne.

My mom, she was like everything to us. She was a beautiful person.” — Korey Hill, attendee

She loved Champagne and tequila,” Hill says.

Mildred Hill contracted COVID-19 at her nursing home and then died at a hospital without family around her at the age of 74.

Korey Hill brought Champagne to his other's memorial photo.Laura Herberg / WDET
Laura Herberg / WDET

Korey Hill brought Champagne to his other’s memorial photo.

My mom, she was like everything to us. She was a beautiful person,” Hill says. “She never had a parking ticket, never turned anybody away, all her doors were always open.”

Hill says he wasn’t able to give his mother a proper memorial when she passed, so he’s grateful that the city is doing this.

For me it’s like an ending, I get some type of closure with it.”

Marguerite Hemphill

Marguerite Hemphill, deceasedLaura Herberg / WDET
Laura Herberg / WDET

Marguerite Hemphill, deceased

Hope Cannady stands in front of a portrait of her mother, Marguerite Hemphill.

This is the closest that I’ll ever get to a viewing because we had to have [my mother] cremated because of this so… This is is all I got.” — Hope Cannady

I think it’s a beautiful thing to see everybody out, to know that I’m not alone in this, that there are others that are grieving and that they’ve lost people too. So, I think this is a beautiful thing, just to help bring closure,” Cannady says.

Hemphill got sick at the beginning of the year and passed away in April at the age of 76. The family is planning to get together to celebrate what would have been her 77nd birthday in September. It will be the first time they’ve been able to get together to celebrate her life. 

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… this is all I got,” she says. 

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Laura Herberg, Community Reporter

Laura Herberg is a Community Reporter for 101.9 WDET, telling the stories about people inhabiting the Detroit region and the issues that affect us here. She has reported since 2010 without owning a car.

Follow @HerbergRadio

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