ST. LOUIS — It broke Jessica Murray's heart that so many people in the St. Louis area were dying from the coronavirus and that they were being remembered less for who they were than as statistics of the pandemic, so she decided to do something about it.
In June, Murray began the website stlouiscovidmemorial.com to honor lives lost to COVID-19. She mostly relies on information she can glean online, including from obituaries and other news stories about the dead. Her site and Facebook page serve as memorials to the area's pandemic victims, providing glimpses into their lives and deaths.
Murray, 40, typically works a couple hours a night on her laptop at the dining room of her duplex in St. Louis' Dutchtown neighborhood, often with her cockatoos Boo, Arthur and Misha providing comfort nearby when the stories overwhelm her.
"Just thinking about what the families are going through, it's heartbreaking," Murray said. "No person with Alzheimer's or dementia or in a nursing home should have to die alone. Nobody should go into a hospital and never see their kids again."
The St. Louis region was an early hot spot. About half of Missouri's more than 3,000 deaths have been in St. Louis or its surrounding counties. And hundreds of others have died just across the Mississippi River in Illinois.
Murray was scrolling through her phone while waiting for her dinner to arrive in June when she saw a New York City website that was tracking lives lost to the virus. By the time her food arrived, she had purchased her domain name.
"I just thought that behind each of these numbers was somebody's grandma or somebody's sister or somebody's mom," Murray said.
Since then, Murray has posted mostly short life stories about more than 125 people. Murray, who works in marketing and sales support for a construction company, said she's never worked as a writer, but her stories are elegant and moving in their simplicity.
MaryCatherine Keene, a 94-year-old nursing home resident who died in May, worked as an airplane riveter during World War II and was "proud of being a woman that worked in her time allowing women to wear long pants."
Rheumatologist Edward Rose, 74, who died in September, "loved a noisy home with children running around playing," Murray wrote. "He loved hosting raucous dinner parties with plenty of wine and comfort food, passionate disagreements, laughter, and story-telling. Ed taught his kids to play chess, water ski, follow through on commitments and the values of philanthropy, travel, and enjoying simple pleasures."
There are stories about married couples who died of COVID-19 in quick succession, such as Grace and Richard Maskell, who were married for 72 years and died nine days apart in May. Bill and Pat Olwig died in May just 40 minutes apart and only days before their 61st wedding anniversary.
Other stories offer haunting imagery of the sad and lonely end that is so common for COVID-19 victims.
Matthew Joseph Leake, who played Santa every year for 30 years, was just 60 years old when he died in August. "He was trying to beat cancer, but caught coronavirus and died alone in the hospital," Murray wrote.
Relatives of the dead often tell Murray how much her memorials mean to them.
"It really moves me," Murray said of the feedback. "It motivates me to keep on doing this whenever I feel like I'm just posting into the void."
Joyce "Lady J" Huston runs a Facebook page called Black Corona Lives Matter that commemorates Black victims of the pandemic in the St. Louis area and seeks to raise awareness about the racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths. Her cousin by marriage, Edward Hellm Jr., was initially misdiagnosed as having some other malady and sent home. The 69-year-old veteran was eventually diagnosed with COVID-19. He died in April after fighting the disease for about a month.
Huston said she felt called to help Murray get the word out about how the disease is prematurely taking away good people like Hellm. Like Murray, she wants victims to be remembered for the people they were instead of just as part of the grim statistics that tell the pandemic's bigger story.
"It's tremendously important because you can't just have numbers. You need to see the faces. You need to hear that these were living people who have lost their lives to a pandemic," Huston said.
Murray said that moving forward, she'd like to work with other memorial sites around the country to perhaps start a national day of remembrance.
She funds her effort with her own money and has no plans to solicit donations.
"I don't know what I would do with it because there's nothing that I need now except more time to tell better stories or put more faces behind these numbers," she said.