They came to remember or to pay respects, or to find a small moment of peace in the shade of the four crepe myrtles near the entrance of Oakwood Cemetery on the edge of downtown Raleigh. They came to say goodbye, again, because there’d never been a proper farewell in the first place.
The virus took Cecelia Schneider’s father this past Thanksgiving. Carson Branan had been in the hospital, alone, “with nobody there,” Schneider said, because that’s how many people spent their final days with COVID-19 — dying alone.
“So when I saw that this was happening,” Schneider said. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s something.’”
This was Sunday at Oakwood, near the iron gates at the entrance of the cemetery, and it was a day of remembrance for families affected by the virus. It was in what the people running the cemetery have named the Grove of Remembrance, where four crepe myrtles stand side-by-side in a grassy field, where ribbons tied to those crepe myrtles danced softly in the breeze of Sunday afternoon.
Each of the ribbons, some blue and others red or green or pink or another color, carried a name of someone lost, with a message. They were not all people who died of the virus, but most of them had died during the pandemic, and died when their loved ones could not mourn the way they would have in a more ordinary time.
That was one of the main reasons behind the Grove of Remembrance, said Robin Simonton, the executive director of Oakwood. To allow, in a small way, the chance to make up for something that was lost, or taken, in the time of COVID-19.
“Families who’ve experienced a loss this year, whether it was COVID or not, were not really able to come in large numbers and remember,” Simonton said Sunday afternoon, while people wrote on ribbons and walked into the field. “We wanted to give families, whether you were buried here or not, whether you died of COVID or not, their families a chance to come and remember.
“And we thought it’d be a nice visual.”
No chance for a proper goodbye
Turn into Oakwood, and the grove is the first thing that comes into sight on the right. The ribbons hang from the branches of the crepe myrtles, each one containing the name of someone with a life and a story.
Schneider’s father lived in Savannah, Georgia, where for most of his life he’d served as the CEO of a small bank and been a prominent leader in the community. He’d worked with Planned Parenthood and Goodwill, and Schneider said he “seemed like a giant,” what with how people looked up to him. Now she cried at the thought of his small funeral. Only six people could attend.
“That’s just wrong,” she said, and it was part of why she’d come to Oakwood on Sunday.
It was similar for Jan Liggins, whose father, Ricky Liggins, died in early November after spending four weeks at WakeMed. The elder Liggins had served for more than 30 years as a police officer in Raleigh, though for the past 20 he’d worked in private security and been a grandfather. The cruel timing of her father’s illness was not lost on Jan, for he became sick with the virus just before vaccines started to become available.
“He would have done anything for anybody, and he was the backbone of the family,” she said, pausing to gather herself. “So we miss him tremendously.”
There hadn’t been a chance for a proper goodbye. The last time she’d seen her dad, Jan had to wear gloves and other personal protective equipment. There’d been no proper mourning, and so she’d come on Sunday, she said, to spend some time where she could feel close to him.
“Just don’t want to forget,” she said.
The Grove of Remembrance is a new addition at Oakwood, and has been in place for about two months. Simonton, the cemetery’s executive director, said she’d like to create something with the ribbons people have left behind — something permanent, perhaps like a quilt that could be stitched from the messages of mourning hanging from the branches in the grove.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, she said, “You could see that people are hurting and looking for a way to honor their loved ones.” On Sunday in one of Raleigh’s oldest cemeteries there was a small way to do that. People came and wrote names and messages and left them behind. Schneider wrote hers on a yellow ribbon that looked gold as the sun began to fall toward the trees.
She wrote his name and four words beside it:
“I miss you, Dad.”