Detroit honors COVID-19 victims with public park memorial

Some of the nearly 900 poster-sized photos of Detroit victims of COVID-19 are displayed Aug. 31 on Belle Isle in Detroit.
Nearly 900 poster-sized photos of Detroit victims of COVID-19 are displayed Monday on Detroit’s Belle Isle.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

An island park in Detroit has become an extraordinary memorial garden, with cars packed with families slowly passing hundreds of photos of city residents who have died from COVID-19.

Mayor Mike Duggan declared Monday Detroit Memorial Day to honor the 1,500-plus city victims of the pandemic. Hearses escorted by police led solemn all-day 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 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 healthcare 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.”

Janice Robleh visited the island Sunday to see the photo of her 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.”