SOMERSET, NJ - As DMVs are converted into COVID-19 testing centers and college dormitories into makeshift hospitals, Franklin Township’s performance gazebo will soon be repurposed to serve the community as well. Rather than joining the ongoing fight against the virus, the gazebo will serve as a different, much-needed community service: a memorial to remember those we’ve lost to the virus.

As of Thursday, April 23rd, a total of sixty-one Franklin Township residents have succumbed to COVID-19. Beginning tonight, the gazebo will transform into a candle-lit vigil called “Spreading the Lights” to remember the lives of these victims. A virtual candle lighting will take place this evening directly after Mayor Kramer’s town hall meeting.

Officially gifted to the township in September 2019 by the Franklin Township Cultural Arts Council (FTCAC), the gazebo was built alongside the municipal center to house a variety of community art and performances, holiday concerts, as well as weddings and other celebrations. However, these gatherings have since been canceled for the foreseeable future due to social distancing restrictions.

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FTCAC member Michael Steinbrück quickly re-envisioned the potential for the unused space in order to support families who are grieving this during this time but do not have access to normal outlets.

“COVID-19 and the physical distancing required of us has disrupted our personal, religious and community rituals of mourning and funerals,” Steinbrück, who helped spearhead the gazebo project, said. “It has largely taken away our ability to communicate loss and for others to be aware so as to offer direct comfort to the bereaved.”

Steinbrück shared the idea with Mayor Phil Kramer along with Dr. Alex Kharazi, founder and President of the Franklin Township Interfaith Council, and soon resources were mobilized to make the memorial a reality.

The Franklin Township Interfaith Council sponsored the purchase of candles, which Kharazi explained were chosen as a universal symbol of “light, hope, and remembrance” among all cultures and religions.

A single candle will be lit to represent each member of the Franklin Township community who has passed away as a result of COVID-19.

“[Each candle] is a sign and message to each grieving family that we know and care,” Steinbrück said. “It is a reminder that even if we do not know their name, our community is thinking and praying for them and their families.”

Candles will be added to the memorial each day as the number of lost lives continues to grow. Steinbrück explained that out of respect for the privacy of victims and their families, the names of the deceased will not be included at the memorial and all candles will remain anonymous.

Mayor Phil Kramer credits Steinbrück and Kharazi with carrying out “the lion’s share” of this project and believes that this display will help people visualize the crisis beyond the amount of cases or deaths.

“People need to think more about it than numbers,” Mayor Kramer said. “It’s not just sixty-one people. It’s all the people they touched and all the people who knew and loved them who are now affected. To see sixty-one lights and then the next day more and the next day more… it will drive home the loss to people so they can see what that loss is, but also help us to remember and commemorate those people.”

Due to the ongoing Statewide Stay-at-Home Order, the Interfaith Council is not encouraging residents to physically come into the gazebo area to participate. Until the area is officially opened, individuals can drive by in the evenings to remember the victims from the safety of their vehicles.

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“Despite the fact that has been terrible thing for the whole community, it has brought the community together in many ways,” Kharazi said, noting the community and religious groups coming together to collect food and financial donations to those in need. “Maybe it gave this opportunity for people to really recognize that we are all children of Adam, and when we face a crisis, we can come together and help each other out.”

While the gazebo intends to be a place of healing for the Franklin Township community, the organizers hope it will inspire similar spaces of solidarity in other towns who are struggling to cope with the impacts of the pandemic.

“I don't think any city in the United States, to the best of my knowledge, has initiated a memorial to remember the victims,” Kharazi said. “I think our town might be the first one to do it, and I'm very happy to be able to be part of it.”

The Franklin Township Gazebo and the “Spreading the Lights” memorial can be seen at 475 Demott Lane, Somerset NJ 08873.

The expenses of the memorial have been fully sponsored by the Franklin Township Interfaith Council. Organizers are encouraging all individuals looking to donate to instead contribute to the Franklin Township Food Bank.

Alternatively, if residents would like to donate Personal Protective Equipment, they may visit the Franklin Township Interfaith Council’s webpage at http://ftwpic.faith/.

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