However tricky the past few months have been, however much I’ve longed to see my family or spend time with friends, whatever difficulties my children may have encountered through missed schooling or isolation, one thing I shall be eternally grateful for is that no one I love appears in this picture.
Not my parents, who weathered this pandemic at the eye of the storm in northern Italy, not my in-laws in Scotland or my relatives in Cornwall and Wales.
As a family, we have been truly blessed. Far too many have not been so fortunate, and these 1,000 faces, so poignantly arranged to form an image of St Paul’s Cathedral, bring that home as never before. Step back, and it’s simply an image of Wren’s familiar masterpiece.
Step closer, and the faces emerge from the frame: each little pixel, an individual with hopes and dreams, triumphs and failures, someone who lived, loved and was loved.
Talk about perspective. If only all they had had to worry about was not being able to go to the hairdresser or having to wear a mask in the supermarket, or whether or not they can safely book a holiday in Portugal.
Such things would surely be a joy compared with the reality of that empty chair in the living room, that cold bed, the silence where once there was laughter.
That is why it is so important, as the cases subside and the success of the vaccine rollout edges us ever closer to normality, that we don’t lose sight of the enormous human cost of this pandemic.
As life begins to open up, as joy and colour slowly return to the world, it is fitting that we should pause, every now and then, to remember those who didn’t make it. Because behind every number, every statistic, every graph – and every face on this page – is a life ended by a cruel disease that not only took their last breath, but in many cases denied them those precious final goodbyes, those last embraces, that touch of a hand or the stroke of a cheek.
These images represent just some of the lives that are commemorated on the St Paul’s Remember Me website, the online book of remembrance for those lost to Covid (or because of Covid) that will lie at the heart of a new national monument, which the Mail is raising funds for.
Bereaved families are invited to submit a picture and a short message about their loved one. Some 9,000 have done so – and counting. They will be shared on interactive digital screens in the cathedral’s Middlesex Chapel, alongside a magnificent new portico. Click on a face, and their details will come up. You can try it for yourself at www.rememberme2020.uk.
Here you will find Norah Lloyd’s (1934-2020) heartbreaking entry beneath her picture: ‘Beloved wife of Christopher who passed away only a few days later. Together forever, death could not part them.’
Or Peter Boden’s (1975-2021): ‘Pete, our incredible Iron Maiden, Aeroplane and Sunderland United loving Son, Brother and Uncle. We still cannot comprehend you are not here and you left us so soon. We love you so much.’
We all have a Norah, a Christopher or a Peter in our lives.
At the height of the crisis, relatives were often not even allowed to see the bodies of loved ones who had passed away, and many were laid to rest in isolation, their families denied the dignity of mourning.
For these victims and their families, this tragedy has been all the more brutal because of the restrictions surrounding the disease.
No one should have had to die alone or with strangers – no one should be denied comfort as they say their final farewells.
Marking all this with a permanent national memorial for those of all faiths and none in St Paul’s is not just a way of honouring the dead and giving thanks for our own lives; it is also a process by which we can begin to heal as a nation.
The campaign to raise funds for the commemorative new oak portico – £2.3million in total is required for completion – has already brought together people from many different walks of life.
You, the readers of the Daily Mail, have helped raise more than £1.6million so far.
And in supporting the appeal, you find yourselves in the company of Prince Charles, the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as noted philanthropists including Lord Spencer, former Tory party treasurer, who donated £100,000 on Thursday.
Just as every one of the 128,000 plus lives lost counts, every donation, large and small, is vitally important.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a captain of industry or an ordinary citizen; the important thing is to be part of this great act of remembrance which will stand as a monument for generations to come as a reminder of what we have endured and a celebration of those gone too soon: The ordinary lives behind an extraordinary national tragedy.
A snapshot of five lost lives in our big picture
Nurse died in own hospital
Areema Nasreen, 36, from Walsall.
The mother of three died last April of Covid in the hospital where she was a nurse.
Her sister Kazeema, who is training to follow in her footsteps, says: ‘It would be wonderful if there was a memorial to everyone who died of Covid, and I’m really grateful to the Daily Mail for supporting it.
‘The hospital has put in a memorial bench for my sister, and I often go and sit there when I’m on my break. It makes me feel closer to her. Everyone who’s been affected by Covid has been scarred for life by it, so I think it’s right those who died should be remembered in this way.
‘I find it easy to talk about Areema, but not everyone who has lost someone feels that way. A memorial could be a place where one day they could go and pour out all their heartache.’
A scholarship in Areema’s name has been launched to fund a nursing degree for a Walsall student who cannot afford the costs.
Mad golfer who’d just burst into song
John Bennett, 69, from Swansea.
Daughter Nicola, 48, says: ‘My sister Kelly and I would be chatting with dad in a cafe when he’d burst into song – usually Bare Necessities from the Jungle Book. We used to be mortified but that was dad all over: a larger-than-life presence who would relieve the tension in tricky work meetings by singing lyrics from The Impossible Dream.
‘He was employed in the steel industry all his life, working his way up to become a project manager.
‘A mad golfer, dad enjoyed an annual golf trip to Portugal with his friends.
‘Full of fun, he was every bit as lovely a grandfather to his three grandchildren as he had been a dad.’
Fairground star and mum to all
Elizabeth Emmett, 61, from Milton Keynes.
Her niece Ocean, 18, says: ‘Her father Keith ran a fairground, and before he put roots down his children were raised on the road.
‘It suited Elizabeth, a flamboyant figure who had showbusiness in her veins. She was incredibly glamorous, always swathed in Swarovski crystals and enveloped in perfume.
‘You would never catch her in jogging bottoms. She was a hard worker, whether manning the rides, making candyfloss or just sorting drinks and food for everyone. She longed for children of her own but channelled her pain into being a wonderful second mum to the rest of us.’
Fawlty fan with a deep chuckle
Stephen Pashley, 58, from Gravesend, Kent.
Daughter Rebekah, 27, says: ‘Dad had the most recognisable laugh you could ever imagine, this deep, distinctive chuckle that he deployed regularly.
‘My sister Sophie and I heard it most frequently when he was watching one of the old comedies he adored – Fawlty Towers being his absolute favourite.
‘He had a very sweet tooth, and his fridge was always stocked with trifle. He also had a big thing about wolves, too.
‘Dad worked in credit control but by his mid-fifties he decided he wanted to do something different and trained as a dementia carer. He turned out to be a natural: he started work last August he said he felt like he was born for the job.
‘Sadly, he didn’t get the chance to do it for long. At the end of November he tested positive for Covid and died three weeks after being hospitalised.’
Daughter who lit up the room
Gillian Riley, 57 from Bolton.
Her mother Valerie Holmes, 77, says: ‘Gillian was my bank holiday baby, born on a warm May day in 1964.
‘She was a shy little girl but as a teenager she blossomed into a stunning, charismatic blonde with no shortage of male admirers, and she was one of those people that everybody knew.
‘You couldn’t walk down the street in her home town Bolton without someone saying hello.
‘She lit up the room when she walked in. Gillian had two lovely daughters, although she never married. She was content working as a mobile hairdresser and raising her two pony-mad girls.
‘Any spare money Gillian had went on horses. Her death has left a huge hole, and we’re struggling to accept it. I keep thinking she’s going to walk through our front door.
‘She’s one reason this memorial is so important – something permanent for her family.’
How can you donate?
Go to crowdfunder.co.uk/rememberme. You can donate any sum you like but the first 5,000 people to donate online using the special £25 ‘Limited Edition Candle from the Daily Mail’ button will receive a free Remember Me frankincense scented candle funded by the Mail. By clicking this button, you will have the option of adding a larger sum. Donors using the ‘£50 Reward’ button will receive a year’s free membership to St Paul’s Cathedral, worth £30. Regrettably, donations made by cheque will not be eligible for the free candle or St Paul’s membership.
Make cheques payable to St Paul’s Cathedral Foundation and send it to Remember Me, Chapter House, St Paul’s Churchyard, London, EC4M 8AD. To boost your donation by 25p of Gift Aid for every £1 you donate, please fill in and cut out the form and add this to your envelope.