COVID-19 victims honored with 1,500 tombstones at Miami park

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Rachel Moore writes a tribute to her cousin Wilton “Bud” Mitchell on Nov. 24, who died of COVID-19. Moore attended the tribute to virus victims held at Simonoff Floral Park in Liberty City.
DANIEL A. VARELA/MIAMI HERALD/TNS

BY C. ISAIAH SMALLS II
MIAMI HERALD/TNS

MIAMI  — To show how the coronavirus is ravaging Black Miamians, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson created a makeshift cemetery in the Liberty City neighborhood. On Nov. 24, she added another 1,000 markers as a stark reminder that for members of her district, the pandemic rages on.

“This is the epicenter of the pandemic,” Wilson said. “We represent many of the zip codes where the virus is roaring like a lion.”

With Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava at her side, Wilson brought the total number of plastic tombstones 1,500. Between the prayers and hymnals, the event served as a pseudo funeral for the several audience members who lost loved ones to the virus.

New testing site too

The ceremonial cemetery expansion also served as the announcement of a new COVID-19 testing site at the nearby Jessie Trice Community Health System. JTCHS has partnered Florida International University in an initiative to better serve and educate Miami-Dade’s undeserved communities.

“Testing is most important,” said Annie Neasman, president and chief executive officer of JTCHS.

The decision to place the cemetery in Simonoff Floral Park was no coincidence. Congressional District 24, which includes Liberty City, Little Haiti and Miami Gardens, has been one of the hardest hit areas not just in Florida but in the entire United States, said Wilson.

African Americans continue to have higher COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates than their white counterparts. To make matters worse, many families were unable to give their deceased relatives the home-going service they deserved.

“We are at about 4,000 lives lost right here in Miami-Dade County and until Congresswoman Wilson did this important memorial, they were not acknowledged, they were not memorialized in our community,” Cava said.

Flowers, obituaries

With the holiday season around the corner, the cemetery also reminded passersby to avoid large gatherings. Many of the tombstones contained heartfelt messages and flowers; others had obituaries or funeral programs taped to their sides.

Dr. Inaki Bent called the memorial “chilling.” A physician at Jackson Health System, he’s been forced to deliver the difficult news of a loved one’s passing to countless families. Bent reminded the audience that simple tasks like wearing masks, washing hands and socially distancing is essentially an act of patriotism.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he noted, “The country rallied around the common goal of defeating an enemy,” Bent said. “I’m asking the community to rally around defeating this enemy so that we won’t have any more victims.”

A somber message

For funeral directors like Dwight Jackson, 2020 has been unlike any other. Miami-Dade’s COVID-19 deaths have brought an explosive need for his services — one he would gladly have done without, the Richardson Mortuary manager told the audience of about 50.

As of Nov. 24, nearly 3,800 people had passed away from the coronavirus in Miami-Dade alone, the highest number of any Florida county and about 21 percent of the state’s total deaths.

“I’ve been a funeral director almost 45 years of my life and I’ve never seen nothing as detrimental as this in my life,” Jackson said.

In her final remarks, Wilson issued an unfiltered reminder to the public: “Wear your damn mask, wash your damn hands and give me some space.”

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