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Pandemic memorial flag project opens

Photo by Allayana Darrow | Ashland Zen Center members and allies created pandemic memorial flags by hand over the past year, strung together in sets of 10 with a bell, creating an immersive sensory experience rooted in healing.

At the Ashland Zen Center, a COVID-19 memorial flag project brings abstract data down to the human level and honors thousands of lives lost during the pandemic.

A project that began when the U.S. surpassed 100,000 COVID-19 deaths grew to incorporate more than 4,000 names, ages, places of death and unique personal traits — many already memorialized on 6-inch white cotton flags on the Zen Center grounds.

Zen Center members and allies created each flag by hand over the past year, strung together in sets of 10 with a bell, creating an immersive sensory experience rooted in healing.

In Buddhism, the wind bell represents an open mind and open heart that responds to input appropriately — the wind blows, the bell swings that direction, said Ramana Waymire, teacher and priest at the Ashland Zen Center. The sound of the bell further symbolizes the voices of the 10 people named on each string.

Project participants dedicated hours to creating the flags, honoring each in an altar space and cleansing them with incense. Rachel Starr remembers the names she inked in marker and stitched together while acknowledging something special about each life — like Cornelius Moose Lawyer, 84 at the time of his death, who was the first in his family to go to college, and Samantha Wissigner, a 29-year-old nurse who died of the virus in Michigan.

“After getting to know each person that way, we would take the flag and bring it over to our home altar because we were at home, each of us doing this together, apart,” said Starr, work leader at the Ashland Zen Center. “It really brings a deeper breath and an appreciation for each person.”

“You’re making these flags and you make one and then you make another, and it feels like you’ve made this huge number of flags,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s this tiny drop in the ocean and it gave it a little bit more perspective on how many people have died.”

In the memorial garden, trees planted in memory of loved ones surround strands of the flags strung between wood stakes, accompanied by the trickling sound of the memorial fountain and wise presence of Buddha seated on a dead cottonwood stump.

“This place is meant to be wide open to the world, because life and death flow in everything that we do and in every moment, but it’s set aside so that we can sit and contemplate and just remember,” Waymire said.

In late May 2020, the U.S. surpassed 100,000 deaths from the virus, prompting the New York Times to run a cover story featuring 1,000 names with a detail to humanize the scale of loss.

“Having that personal connection made those numbers real,” Waymire said. “In our community, we wanted to be able to touch that, to really feel the immensity of that number — 100,000 people is just too big, you can’t really grasp it, but you can really grasp one person.”

“The idea is, heart to heart, one person at a time, you can really honor and feel the enormity of the tragedy of the COVID pandemic,” Waymire said.

During a week-long winter retreat — much of the time spent in silent meditation — members focused on the flag project and “the great matter of life and death.”

The community combed news releases and websites to find names, as no central database of COVID-19 deaths existed. Some were listed through a teacher or police union, for example. Members who contributed to painstaking research for thousands of names faced intense emotions, Waymire said, meeting and feeling the love and connections of one life after another.

“It’s not even close to 1% of the number who have died, but it’s a heartfelt expression of honoring all those people and that every time someone dies, it affects a huge web of people that person touched,” Waymire said.

As of Thursday, COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. totaled 730,368 since the pandemic started, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While many facets of the pandemic breed division, Waymire said regardless of the beliefs characteristic of one’s life, “everyone is born, everyone lives and loves, and everyone is going to die” — a shared experience worthy of the pursuit of harmony.

All are invited to sit down, breathe and perhaps emerge prepared to approach someone else’s perspective with more “softness,” instead of adding to strife, Waymire said.

“We will all end up being a name on a flag or a warmth in someone’s heart,” Waymire said. “If we can just be forces for good and slow down enough that we can get past the differences that we might lead with and find the common humanity — we’re all just lucky to be breathing today.”

Visitors can view or add to the flag installation at the Ashland Zen Center, 740 Tolman Creek Road,through Tuesday, Oct.. 26, between noon-4 p.m. each day. A ceremony of Segaki, an annual Buddhist tradition to honor loved ones who have died, is scheduled for Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. as the culmination of the memorial flag project.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.