Is this Belmar beach COVID memorial doomed? Creator needs your ideas to save it
A walk alongside Belmar COVID memorial Asbury Park Press
The weather is getting nicer and that’s good news for most of us, especially those who love the shore. It’s bad news for Rima Samman.
The 42-year-old’s poignant COVID memorial on Belmar’s Third Avenue beach, which has gained widespread admiration since she created it in January to honor her late brother, must move inland. But at the moment, it has no place to go.
And that’s really sad.
What started as a small group of hand-sized stones and seashells shaped to form a four-foot-wide heart — the rocks bear handwritten names of people who have died from COVID, including Rima’s brother Rami Samman — has expanded to nine hearts and 2,000 stones.
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That’s 2,000 people who honored a loved one by either placing a stone themselves or asking Rima to do it for them. Many of them never held a funeral. This is their closure.
Samman, a longtime Belmar resident, has asked the Asbury Park Press to help the memorial find a permanent home. Now we’re asking readers.
“Can someone please help me preserve this so we don’t have to break the hearts of these families again?” she said. “There is so much significance to it. It’s not just rocks and shells anymore.”
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The memorial can’t stay on the beach for a number of reasons: corrosive beachfront weather, the possibility of a storm washing it away, and the potential for vandalism once tourists start pouring in for the summer season. Samman has spoken with Belmar’s administrator, Ed Kirschenbaum, and they agree that it needs to be relocated sometime in the early spring.
“We had a great conversation and we’re trying to figure out what the next step is,” Kirschenbaum said. “We’re going to work together on it.”
The question is where. Ideally, Samman would like to move it indoors in a Shore town — protecting it but also maintaining a serene destination for the bereaved who wish to visit.
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Belmar Historical Society President Spencer Heulitt said he loves the memorial, but there’s not nearly enough room in the society’s building.
“I’m glad she picked our town to do it in,” Heulitt said. “It’s something that obviously brings comfort to many people who have lost loved ones. It’s a reminder of this time and what we’ve been through.”
Heulitt suggested a borough park, perhaps near Belmar’s World War I Doughboy statue. There’s also the park surrounding Silver Lake.
“We’re working with her to see what the best options are,” Kirschenbaum said. “Nothing is off the table right now.”
In our background conversations with government officials of nearby beachfront towns, gauging their interest, concerns were echoed: green space is at a premium, worries about drunken vandalism from shore partiers, and bureaucratic red tape.
Multiple government officials suggested a Monmouth County park might be the best solution. There’s certainly more room. Samman said she’s made contact with the office of Monmouth County Freeholder Director Tom Arnone and is looking forward to discussing potential solutions with him.
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'Brought me to tears'
One possibility is the Freehold-based Monmouth County Historical Association, which has done a wonderful job with “Springsteen: His Hometown,” a superstorm Sandy exhibition, and many others.
“We would certainly be interested in accepting that into the collection,” director of collections Bernadette Rogoff said. “I think it would be marvelous.”
Last month Rogoff and colleague Dana Howell, the association’s research librarian and archivist, visited the Belmar COVID memorial.
“It was moving,” Rogoff said. “The display brought me to tears.”
Typically, though, the association’s museum avoids establishing permanent installations because space is precious.
“What happens with most of our artifacts is we store them properly and correctly, and then we plan for exhibitions when appropriate,” Rogoff explained. “Everything gets a turn. This is something we’d be able to preserve for decades if not centuries. Someone in the future is going to want to do an exhibition talking about COVID, and this would be perfect.”
That certainly beats dismantling the memorial for good, but for the time being at least, Samman would prefer someplace where it would be regularly available to those who feel compelled to visit.
“So many people have asked me, ‘What do I need to donate to help you?’” she said. “People ask, ‘Why haven’t you created a GoFundMe yet?’ I’m sure it could raise $20,000 or $30,000, but I don’t know exactly what I need right now.”
What she needs is a helping hand, because summer is coming, and for 2,000 grieving families who have found solace in these nine hearts, that means time is running out.
For more information or to help Rima Samman, visit www.facebook.com/Covid19MemorialBelmarNJ or email email@example.com.
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.