Local church commemorates SD's COVID-19 fatalities with memorial display

Rev. Matthew Richards, right, ties a ribbon on the COVID-19 memorial on Nov. 23 in front of the Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Mitchell. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

One by one, a group of local church members hung ribbons on a clothesline late last week in memory of the South Dakotans who lost their lives to COVID-19.

As the state continues losing residents to COVID-19 on a daily basis, members with the Congregational United Church of Christ (CUCC) in Mitchell felt it was time to raise awareness of the fatalities that the virus has caused. That’s what led to the creation of the COVID-19 memorial that’s on display at the corner of East Fourth Avenue in front of the church.

For Wendy Figland, ministry assistant, the memorial hits close to home. After all, three of the ribbons hanging on the memorial represent her family members who died from COVID-19.

“We are remembering those who died from the virus and making people aware that this disease is deadly,” Figland said. “I hope the visual impact will help people understand that this virus is real, and it needs to be taken seriously.”

On the afternoon that the group installed the memorial, the state had a total of 741 deaths related to COVID-19. That number has since climbed to 849, as of Friday, according to the state Department of Health. Of the 849 ribbons tied on the memorial, 32 of them commemorate the lives of Davison County residents.


Rev. Matthew Richards is proud of the impact the COVID-19 memorial has had in its first week of existence. He said community members have shown their support for the display with a myriad of social media responses.

For Richards, the memorial is much more than a display to remember the South Dakotans who died from the virus. It’s also a reminder that every individual who dies from COVID-19 is a family’s loved one.

“Everyday that number goes up, we will remember the lives of those individuals even if we don’t know them,” Richards said.

The variation of colored ribbons that are used for each fatality represent the diversity of South Dakota, Richards said.

“One of the things that really touched my heart when we were talking about the colored ties is that there are other Indigenous peoples who use ties and materials to celebrate prayer and their spirituality, and it came organically out of our community of faith that we would want to do that,” Richards said. “Those ties also represent prayers for all the families who are mourning, and the individuals who are struggling with this virus.”

The memorial is also raising funds to support local health care workers who are battling the virus on a daily basis inside hospitals and nursing homes.

Considering some family members have been unable to attend their loved one’s funeral due to the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, Figland said she hopes the memorial can help those family members grieve their loss.

“It’s so sad because families aren’t able to mourn together and share the memories of their loved ones. I hope that this gives them another way to remember their family or friends who passed away from the virus,” Figland said. “We weren’t able to have all of our family come to the funeral for my family members who died, and it was really hard.”


When Richards isn’t leading Sunday worship services at the church, he’s spending time with elderly and critically-ill patients as a hospice chaplain. He said the division that the pandemic has sparked is having an impact on everyone.

Richards stressed the importance of the community being united in taking the virus head on, which he said could reduce the spread and limit the number of ribbons that his fellow church members have to tie on the memorial.

“It’s impacting all of us,” Richards said. “We can’t be playing games with this and be so divided. As faith leaders, I really feel strongly that we have to get this right and do our best to get a handle on this virus.”

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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