Reverend Patrick Collins, senior pastor of the First Congregational Church of Greenwich, Connecticut, has just placed an order for another thousand small white flags.
“I hope I don’t have to use them,” he told The Daily Beast.
There are presently 2,168 flags on the front lawn of the church Rev. Collins leads. The number marks the number of those who have died of the coronavirus in Connecticut. Every morning, Collins checks the official death toll, heads outside whatever the weather, and adds another set of flags.
On Thursday morning, before we speak, he had added another 81 flags to the rows of those already fluttering on the grass.
Collins noted that, for Friday morning, he only had 19 flags left as he awaited his next shipment. That will likely not be enough to take account of the number of Connecticut’s daily dead, he thought. (It wouldn’t. After we spoke, another 89 deaths were confirmed in the state, meaning a new total of 2,257 deaths—and many more flags.)
“It really started a few weeks ago when the Connecticut death toll started to rise, and I heard a lot of talk about what we had to learn from this, and how we had to move forward,” Collins said. “I thought we were skipping a stage of grieving. We should recognize who and what we have lost and what we continue to lose in this crisis—and that it does have a human toll. If we don’t acknowledge that grief and loss we are going to regret it, I think.”
Collins wanted to come up with a way to visualize “what we have lost and what we have gone through. I wanted people to be able to acknowledge the pain they were feeling, and signal to them it was OK to grieve. They don’t have to immediately ‘learn’ something, and move on.
“To have over 2000 of the flags on the lawn really hits home. A lot of people in Connecticut are losing their lives, and the sad thing is people are dying alone. They may have health-care workers around them, but they are separated from their families.”
The lawn of flags’ simple design is based on Arlington National Cemetery, which Collins has visited a number of times, struck by its rows of white headstones and atmosphere of “honor and reverence.”
On Friday April 17, he began laying the flags, beginning with 700 that first day. “It just keeps filling up,” Collins said. “The first day I didn’t realize it would take so long. Once I got to 200, I noticed people slowing their cars down. Then it started to hit home.”
Now, said Collins, “It has become a spiritual, meditation practice for me. With each flag, I pause to recognize a human life that was lost. When I have planted all the flags for that day I say a prayer for all who have passed. I just hope we reach the end at some point, and I no longer have to do it. Every day the prayer is slightly different. I am trying to hold the memory of the people in silence and then praying to God to bring peace and comfort to the families of the people, so they may find some kind of hope and comfort during this tragedy we are experiencing together.”
Collins began laying the flags horizontally, with enough spacing between them for a lawnmower: “It’s springtime. The grass is going to grow.”
But as the numbers of Connecticut dead increased, Collins has had to cut down on the space between flags. “I’m running out of room. I’m not sure where to put more flags,” Collins admitted. “And we’ll definitely have to get a smaller lawnmower.”
“It’s very sobering to look at the flags,” he said. “It’s a reminder that this has a cost, and that it’s not only OK to grieve, but that to deny that grief is to deny our humanity. Every time I look at the flags, I remember it’s OK to feel this. We have to process that if we are ever going to move on.”
“We are in this time where we can’t gather as a community to grieve,” he said. “Our church has been around for 354 years. It’s been through it all. When 9/11 happened, people came here to grieve together. We can’t do that now. This is a way for the whole community to come together in its own way to grieve.”
‘Sometimes it’s hard, you get lost in the number’
Up until Wednesday night, Collins had found the laying of the flags emotional, but he had internalized his feelings, he said. Nobody at the church had been directly affected. Several people had been diagnosed and recovered. Then, on Wednesday, a church employee told Collins his brother was dying. On Thursday morning, Collins put out a flag for him.
“It hit home for me, for the first time I cried about it,” said Collins. “It really made it personal for me—someone I know and care about at church had lost a family member. This was direct.”
The first day he started laying the flags, Collins’ older sons—he has four children, aged 9 through 18 months—wanted to come and help him. “But they didn’t really understand it, and were running around and being silly. I had to kind of pull them aside, and say, ‘Look we’re doing a serious thing here, and I want you to help, but we have to be serious.’” Collins laughed gently. “They helped, then decided it wasn’t really for them, so I sort of do it by myself now.”
The family lived for three years in a house overlooking the lawn, before moving into a home behind the church. Collins’ wife, Kate, said to him that she was “sort of glad” she didn’t have to look out of the window at the flags every day.
Almost every morning while he is putting the flags out, a passerby will stop and thank him for doing so, Collins said. “They say that it is a really sad, stark visual, but they are thankful for the reminder. I haven’t had anyone say it’s depressing.” One morning a woman approached Collins in tears. “It hit her hard. I think she had lost someone to coronavirus,” said Collins.
While it’s tough to keep ordering and laying the flags, Collins has seen predictions of a total of around 4,000 dead for Connecticut, and he will carry on with his daily solemn act of remembrance until the deaths stop. The daily totals may be decreasing, but they are still substantial.
“Sometimes it’s hard, you get lost in the number,” Collins said. “But part of the act of putting the flags in the ground is to remember that each one is a person, and another family that has experienced the loss of somebody, whether that be someone’s grandparent, or someone’s mother.”
If the design of Arlington Cemetery inspired the rows of flags, the color white, for Collins as a Christian, also embodies hope. “The color of the Easter season is white. It symbolizes hope and resurrection and new life. To me, the flags contrast the marking of the loss of life and an opportunity to grieve, with a sense of hope too.”