BELMAR – This local artist has not only impacted those from the Jersey Shore, but now globally, with her handmade memorial honoring those who have passed away from COVID-19.
Belmar resident Rima Samman designed the heart-shaped memorial on 3rd Ave. to honor her brother who passed away in 2020 from COVID-19.
“It started on January 25. I started on that day because it would have been my brother’s 41st birthday. I lost my brother on May 10, 2020 and like everybody else we didn’t get a funeral or anything,” Samman said.
Decorated on the sands of Belmar Beach, clam shells painted yellow are placed in a shape of a heart. Inside the hearts lay stones with the names of COVID victims written on them.
“I decided to do a local lighting and I invited locals from Belmar, Wall and Asbury Park. About 25 people showed up and I also asked online if anybody wanted to include their loved ones in there that are from New Jersey. I got about 150 names that day and that’s how it all started,” Samman said.
Little did Samman know that her small memorial would soon contain over 2,000 rocks with victim names.
“That evening I went out, I lit the heart and literally I thought I was going to go home, go to sleep and the next day we would just walk over and clean everything up. Instead, it hit social media and I woke up to about 198 messages of strangers just asking me if I could include their loved ones in the heart. I started adding names and then day by day the requests just kept coming in, it wasn’t slowing down. Now people are coming in from everywhere, nationwide, even internationally at this point. It’s grown into 11 hearts now,” Samman said. “Personally, I’ve probably placed approximately 2,000 names in there now. But there’s also locals that would go there and do their own rocks. With the locals included it may be 2,200.”
Samman decided to hold a second lighting on March 13 since the memorial was growing in popularity. She picked this date as it marks one year since the beginning of the pandemic at the Jersey Shore.
“At least 400 people or more showed up, which I was really shocked about. People asked me to light the hearts again since they saw the original photos of the lighting. I posted it on Facebook announcing that I’ll relight the hearts on this day, if anyone wants to attend, they’re more than welcome to come. I never in my life imagined that many people coming. There was a family that flew in from Ohio just to come. There were some people that drove in from out of state and stayed in the area overnight. I never ever thought that would happen,” Samman said.
Currently, a GoFundMe has been started to raise enough money to find a permanent home for the memorial as well as create a museum that will remember the 532,000 lives lost to date.
“My goal is to get a permanent memorial going and to preserve the one that’s already been started. You know it can’t stay on the beach because mother nature is eventually going to get to it but also obviously the town is being tolerant right now and giving me the time to relocate it, but they’ve expressed already that it needs to be moved. We started the GoFundMe in hopes to raise enough funds to entice somebody to give us property to build a proper memorial,” Samman said.
Although she has paused on taking names, many locals are adding their own rocks with names to the memorial.
“Locals are still coming by doing their own thing. Somebody actually anonymously built the 11th heart. I didn’t build it myself. They actually went overnight and did it so I was really surprised, and the heart is already almost full,” Samman said.
As Samman works on gaining funds to relocate the memorial, she has plans to meet with County Commissioners and more to discuss ideas.
“Right now, I do have some meetings set up, and I’m hoping that it will eventually support the cause and help us. But I do have a meeting with County Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone and then I also have a meeting with the Rotary Club of Asbury Park. I have reached out to Governor Murphy, Senator Booker and Senator Menendez as well, I just haven’t had any replies yet,” she said.
Samman expressed how important it is to find a permeant location for the memorial as she knows this is the only outlet many have had to honor their loved ones.
“I do want to stress that the goal is to relocate it. A lot of people think that we’re trying to re-imagine it. I got around 75 messages on ideas, saying ‘you can put it on wood planks and stand it up on the board walk.’ We would still need permission to do that. The biggest issue right now it to get a location for it. We can reimagine it if we have to, I’m an artist I can figure it out, I would just need the spacing,” she said. “I’m open to any location I don’t have anything in mind. At this point it would need to go anywhere. I don’t want to break the families’ hearts again. People are really attached to this memorial.”
“It’s really sad, but from meeting people at the lighting, some people still don’t even have a tombstone on their loved one’s grave and it’s been seven or eight months already. Then again so many of us didn’t get a funeral. This is a great way for people to honor their loved ones outside of a cemetery. I don’t want it to be demolished and ruined because we couldn’t find a place for it. The ideal thing would be something indoors, because of outdoor elements. Maybe creating like a gallery or like a museum-type atmosphere, where again names can be displayed and the hearts can be preserved, and people can come and visit and pay respects to their loved ones. Visually it would be serene and calming to them,” Samman said.
If you would like to support Samman and her COVID-19 memorial in Belmar, you can visit the GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/ramis-heart-covid19-memorial.