MASSIES MILL — Hundreds of American flags dotted the front lawn of Grace Episcopal Church on Tuesday, a solemn reminder in Nelson County of a grisly milestone the nation reached just one day prior.
As the COVID-19 death toll topped 500,000 lives and counting Monday, members of the Massies Mill-based church spent Tuesday planting 500 flags, each one representing 1,000 people, in the shape of a cross to honor those lives lost.
Against the backdrop of the setting sun, roughly a dozen residents held a memorial service that began and ended with the sound of the church bell’s toll shortly after members finished planting the flags.
Community members also participated in song and prayer and the reading of a poem.
“We just wanted to recognize that there are half a million of us who have died,” Senior Warden of Grace Episcopal Church Sharon Ponton said.
The brief memorial service Tuesday afternoon marks roughly one year since the first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported in Virginia on March 7.
Piney River resident Frank McManus, who sang during the memorial service, said he thought the flag display outside the church was “beautiful.”
“It really makes you proud on the one hand, but it’s kind of depressing the reason we have to do it,” McManus said, adding he knows people who have been sick and died from the virus.
The Associated Press reported the number of confirmed deaths in the U.S. as a result of the virus accounts for 20% of the roughly 2.5 million deaths worldwide. The U.S. has the highest death toll reported in the world.
Projections show the country may surpass 600,000 deaths in June, the AP reported.
In the Lynchburg area, 233 deaths have been reported as of Tuesday, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health website. That number includes Amherst, Nelson, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties and the city of Lynchburg.
Nelson County has seen seven reported fatalities since the onset of the pandemic, with the first one reported in mid- September.
“I wish there were none,” Ponton said of deaths in Nelson County. “It’s sad that anybody had to pass away from this.”
Amherst County has seen 6 new deaths related to the virus reported in the past week alone. On Feb. 16, the county had 13 cumulative deaths since the pandemic began. By Tuesday, the mark had climbed to 19, according to the latest VDH figures.
Ponton said she hoped the hundreds of flags might serve as a physical reminder to not only the pandemic’s toll, but to recognize those who still are fighting the virus.
“I hope that they would recognize that there are people who really care about what’s going on and it would offer some solace and peace,” Ponton said. “I hope people realize it’s a recognition not only of people who have passed but people who are fighting the illness now.”
The church held a similar remembrance in January when the nation surpassed 400,000 cases, Ponton said, but the cross was unique to the Tuesday ceremony.
Despite what she called a frustrating vaccine rollout, Ponton said increasing immunizations in the county and across the nation does give her some hope of an end in sight.
“It’s not a way out but a way through,” Ponton said.
Weather permitting, Ponton said she plans to keep the flags up for about a couple of weeks.
“Our flags are for loved ones left behind and their families. May our Lord give comfort and peace to these families. Let there be light at the end of the tunnel for these families,” said Nelson resident Frosty Flippin as she recited a prayer.