Amy Vandegrift - Salem Reporter.jpg

On the lawn of her Salem home, Amy Vandegrift has installed plastic headstones, one for every thousand American lives lost to COVID-19.

SALEM — With Halloween a week away, it’s not hard to find gravestones adorning local lawns. But Amy Vandegrift’s yard is more memorial than festive adornment.

The grass in front of her Salem home is nearly covered with more than 200 small white fragments of plastic signs, cut to look like headstones: one for every 1,000 people in the U.S. who have died from COVID-19 this year.

“I started because it’s not a number — it’s people. And it’s families,” she said.

At the current pace of U.S. deaths, she’s adding one marker per day to the memorial. Oregon’s toll as of Oct. 22 was 646 people dead, among the lowest death rates in the U.S. Official estimates for the U.S. count vary, with Johns Hopkins University recording 223,381 Americans dead to date.

Vandegrift, who’s retired from a career in museums, said building the memorial has helped her make sense of the toll the pandemic has taken on American families.

Her home is tucked away in a cul-de-sac in the Morningside neighborhood, a block that gets little through traffic. Some neighbors have asked about the installation, she said, but it’s mostly a place for her to reflect.

She and her husband, originally from Ohio, have mostly lived in Salem since the 1970s, with a brief stint in Bloomington, Illinois in the 1990s. There, the local history museum Vandegrift worked for hosted guided walks through a local cemetery, telling stories about some of the dead.

Fall has several holidays where families remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones, which got her thinking about a COVID-19 memorial. Those include the Mexican Day of the Dead, as well as All Saints Day, which Vandegrift usually celebrates by making a small altar with pictures of her relatives who have died.

Her COVID-19 memorial is simple — there is no text on any of the markers, no photos of some of those who have died from the disease. But her hope is to capture the scale of the pandemic’s mark on the U.S. by reminding people that behind the growing counts of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, there are real people.

“What I really want is people to think of them as people and maybe offer a prayer for them and their families,” she said.

She doesn’t personally know anyone who’s died, she said, but her nephew had a serious case of COVID-19 early in the pandemic and still has lingering symptoms. Her cousin also fell sick with the virus but recovered.

She had the idea for a memorial art project several weeks ago as other Salem homes began decorating for Halloween.

The markers are made from scraps donated by two local sign companies, fixed into the ground with bamboo skewers.

For Vandegrift, it’s part recycling project, part spiritual exercise and a way to keep herself busy.

Vandegrift has 50 more gravestones cut in her house, ready to be added as the count of the dead continues to climb.

“I hope I never have to put them up,” she said.

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