DETROIT — The city turned an island park into an extraordinary memorial garden Monday as cars packed with grieving families slowly traveled past hundreds of photos of Detroit residents who died from COVID-19.
Mayor Mike Duggan declared a Detroit Memorial Day to honor the 1,500-plus city victims of the pandemic. Hearses escorted by police led solemn processions around Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River after bells rang across the region at 8:45 a.m.
Radio station WRCJ, which plays classical music and jazz, added gospel to its playlist and read the names of the deceased.
"It is our hope that seeing these beautiful faces on the island today ... will wake people up to the devastating effect of the pandemic," said Rochelle Riley, Detroit’s director of arts and culture.
The "memorial was designed to bring some peace to families whose loved ones didn’t have the funerals they deserved," Riley said. "But it may also force us to work harder to limit the number of COVID-19 deaths we’ll endure in the coming months."
More than 900 photos submitted by families were turned into large posters and staked around Belle Isle, revealing the crushing breadth of the virus.
The pictures show people in better times: Darrin Adams at college graduation; Daniel Aldape catching a fish; Shirley Frank with an Elvis impersonator; Veronica Davis crossing the finish line at a race.
They had "dreams and plans and a story," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at Belle Isle. "They weren’t finished yet."
Detroit has roughly 7% of Michigan’s population but 23% of the state’s 6,400 COVID-19 deaths. The city is nearly 80% Black.
“The virus exposed deep inequities, from basic lack of access to health care or transportation or protections in the workplace,” Whitmer said. “These inequities hit people of color in vulnerable communities the hardest.”
An April community meeting over Zoom got the mayor thinking about ways to honor people. Cher Coner’s mother, Joyce, had died of sepsis, not COVID-19, but she couldn’t have a traditional funeral because of virus restrictions. She appealed to Duggan for something special, knowing that his father, a retired federal judge, had died in March after chronic health problems.
"I was afraid to speak up. He took it and ran with it," said Coner, whose mother's photo is on Belle Isle. "I hope this ignites something in this country and brings healing to the nation."
Monday’s tour was strictly reserved for families of the deceased, although the photos were installed and visible over the weekend. The general public can see them again Tuesday.
Janice Robleh visited the island Sunday to gaze at her dapper fiance, Orville Dale, 55, who died in May. He had beaten prostate cancer but couldn’t overcome the virus in a hospital.
"My last conversation? I get misty-eyed," Robleh, 55, said. "I kept telling him, 'You’re going to come home. I had a dream.'"
"This is wonderful," she said of the park display. "It’s so great to see his smile. That's what captivated me. We were planning to get married this year. We had so many plans."