“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
This is the first, and will most likely be the only, time that I have quoted Joseph Stalin in a sermon.
We are fast approaching a sobering milestone in this country — one million deaths from the coronavirus. When I checked this morning, the number was just a few shy of 990,000. Within a week or two we will reach that overwhelming number. Worldwide that number is 6.2 million.
One million dead in our country. How can we make that more than a statistic? How can we put it in perspective?
In a few minutes we will ring the bell that is beside the altar. How long would it take to ring it one million times?
Well, if we were generous and said we can ring it once every two seconds, that’s 30 times a minute; 1,800 times an hour; 43,200 times in 24 hours.
If we were going to sit here while the bell rang to honor every Covid death, we’d be sitting here 24 hours a day for 23 days.
Our reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus has something to say about remembering those who’ve died. They sing the praises of famous men and women. Those who ruled nations, who were great prophets, who are remembered in history books; artists and musicians whose work lives on well after them; the wise and the rich.
Those people in our time are not immune to Covid. That million deaths includes political figures like Colin Powell and Herman Cain. There are musicians like John Prine, Charlie Pride, and Ellis Marsalis. There are Broadway actor Nick Cordero and Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Tom Seaver.
Google “famous people who have died from Covid” and the list that appears is a long one. These are the names that make the news, which will be remembered for at least a while.
But most of the deaths we remember today are, as the writer of Ecclesiasticus says, those of whom “there is no memory.” Just ordinary men, women, and children living ordinary lives.
History may not remember them, but God does. These deaths are not a statistic to God; each and every one is a beloved child of God, unique and special in God’s eyes.
This week I watched a 15-minute film produced by The New York Times, entitled “Overwhelmed by the Vastness of Death.”
The film focused on an art installation on the National Mall to remember those who have died from Covid.
Artist Suzanne Firstenberg had an idea — to plant a small white flag on the National Mall in Washington for each person who has died from Covid in this country. Last September she, with help from 150 landscapers. planted 630,000 flags on the mall. Before the exhibit ended 17 days later, 70,000 more were planted.
The flags cover 20 acres of grass. They are intertwined with almost four miles of walking paths.
The flags did not have names, but people were invited to personalize them, writing messages with sharpies on the flags.
Even in photographs the sea of flags is overwhelming. The film, which has no narration, focuses on people who have come to the display, some to appreciate its vastness, others to remember a specific person.
A woman who lost her father cries to her companion, “He must have been so scared, all by himself.”
“We never got to have a funeral,” another says.
“Derrick, you’re always in our hearts,” a message on one flag reads. “Oh, how I miss you, my beloved child.”
“I miss you every day, baby. Every day. Every day,” another person says looking at a flag.
Doctors and nurses visited to pay tribute to their patients. “There’s my 21-year-old; there’s my 32-year-old,” a nurse says. “We did everything we could, but it wasn’t enough.”
“Jay Kauphusman, you are loved,” one flag’s message says. “Thank you for hanging in there one more day so we could celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.”
Firstenberg, the artist, spent most days at the installation, hearing the stories of those who visited.
“I have been so isolated in my grief at my dad’s death,” one woman told her. “But coming here and seeing all these flags, I realize I have a lot of company — I have not been mourning alone.”
A doctor from Denver told her, “My mother died in May and my wife died in June of Covid. And I had to go on as a pulmonologist being on the front line of caring for people with this disease. I had to put my doctor face on and go straight back to the hospital.
“Being able to be amongst these flags has allowed me to finally experience that grief ‘ve had to bottle up inside.”
The sea of flags not only represents the people who have died, each also represents an ocean of grief.
“My goal was to reclaim the dignity of each person who had become a number,” Firstenberg said. “This art is created not only to honor each individual we have lost, but also to create a moment of pause, a moment of reflection for our nation.”
As we approach the one million death mark, may we see beyond the statistic and realize that each of these deaths are of people who were loved. Each death is a tragedy.
And each of them is beloved by God, who sees not statistics, but a sea of God’s cherished children.