Today
Sun 17 January 2021

A day of remembrance is being held to mourn all those we have lost to COVID-19, six months after the UK’s first Coronavirus death

On 5 March, the BBC reported that a 70-year-old woman in the Royal Berkshire Hospital had become the first Briton to die of COVID-19.

Exactly six months and tens of thousands of lives later, an initiative is hoping to bring together people across the country in a national day of remembrance.

People in cities, towns and villages are being invited to join candle-lit vigils and socially distanced memorial services in order to share a moment of reflection and collective grief.

The idea for COVID Memorial Day was sparked by the recognition that, in the words of grief expert, David Kessler, “grief must be witnessed”.

In the months since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, Britons have been subjected to an unending barrage of facts, figures and graphs – charting the ever-rising death toll.

And yet, apart from clapping for carers, the only opportunity people have been given to come together was not for a moment of collective mourning. Instead, it was for a day of nostalgia and the celebration of ‘VE Day’.

Contrast this with Spain, where a 10-day remembrance period was held in May. Italy observed a minute of silence for its Coronavirus victims in March, and China held a nationwide day of mourning in February. The New York Times and O Globo, Brazil’s biggest newspaper, both devoted their entire front pages to obituaries of the dead when their county’s death toll hit 100,000.

Nurses and doctors at Huichang People’s Hospital pay tribute as China holds national mourning for those who died of the Coronavirus. Photo: ChinaImages/SIPA USA/PA Images

We Will Remember Them

Part of the problem in Britain is that the everything about the Government’s Coronavirus strategy is inextricably entwined with politics, and any association with the dead is something Downing Street wants to avoid at all costs. As result, the act of grieving the dead has become almost a political act.

And yet the organissrs of COVID Memorial Day, myself included, are determined to keep the day entirely non-political.

A coalition was formed last month including HEROES, a group that provides support to NHS frontline staff. “Working as a frontline doctor in COVID intensive care units, I saw the painful toll of this last six months on patients and their loved ones as well as on NHS staff,” says Dr Dominic Pimenta, chair of HEROES. “But on this day we will take a moment remember those who are no longer with us and commit ourselves to continue to support healthcare workers and their bereaved families.”

As well as providing a day of remembrance, one of the other coalition partners, the COVID Memorial Forest Fund, aims to create a more permanent memorial to the dead in the shape of a forest.

The forest of 50,000 trees will be planted on 60 hectares of land (three sites are currently being considered) and will include a playground, a butterfly farm and an interactive app that will send you a message after every tree that you pass. That message will tell you about the life of the person in whose memory that tree was planted, including photos and film.

“Whilst COVID Memorial Day is bound to live long in our hearts, we also wanted to leave a more permanent memorial,” said Salmaan Nasser, co-founder of the COVID Memorial Forest Fund. “The Memorial Forest will be a sanctuary where people can come and relax and remember but also a symbol post-COVID of rejuvenation and growth.”

The deaths of so many elderly people due to COVID-19 also led to the creation of Hear Our Elders – a group seeking to use the pandemic as an opportunity for society to change the way it treats older people. Their digital listening project aims to persuade families to record their elders and build a repository of their knowledge and wisdom.

Like ‘Clap for Carers’, COVID Memorial Day is an idea, not an organisation or a campaign.

It is hoped that, in the same way that our hearts swelled with gratitude when we came together to applaud NHS and social care workers, we will allow ourselves to come together in a moment of collective grief.

In Macbeth, when Malcom hears that MacDuff’s wife and children are dead he says, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

This Saturday, exactly six months after the first Briton was reported to have died of the disease, COVID Memorial Day will be a moment to give our sorrow words.


COVID Memorial Day Details

A socially-distanced service in a north London church will be live-streamed from 5pm tomorrow, 5 September.

The order of service includes readings by actors and music by world-class musicians, but its main intention is to give space for bereaved families speak about those they have lost.

People will travel from the church to join the candle-lit vigil in Trafalgar Square from 8pm.

Organisers are also asking the public to put a picture of a candle in their windows.

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