More than a hundred people gathered at the Free Library’s McPherson Square branch Thursday evening for a heartfelt vigil.
The service wasn’t in memory of just one person — instead, it was a vigil remembering more than 1,200 people, all of whom suffered fatal drug overdoses last year in Philadelphia.
This memorial wasn’t about the sheer quantity of people lost, high as it is, but about connecting actual personalities to the city’s addiction epidemic, which is most often depicted in depersonalizing numbers. There were quilts and posters that showed the faces of loved ones lost, and a candlelit memorial made from a stroller.
Speakers read out loud a list of the names of people who died (when requested by families and friends) and said a prayer for those whose names they didn’t know. Among the people lost to overdose were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons. There were grandchildren. There were lovers and friends. The people who died last year were “loving, caring and fun,” the speakers told the crowd. They were “huge Eagles fans.” They gave “the best damn hugs ever.”
Hosted on a hot summer evening, the memorial service felt almost celebratory. If it weren’t for all the candles and the gigantic banner that read “Narcan saves lives,” one might’ve mistaken it for an early Labor Day gathering.
The vigil was on the eve of Pennsylvania’s statewide, newly declared Overdose Awareness Day. It also came on the heels of a protest in Center City on Wednesday, which advocated for an overdose prevention site. Jose DeMarco, a representative from the advocacy group ACT UP, closed out the ceremony with a plea: attendees should come out to their weekly meetings to help advocate for policy change, which might help people with addiction survive.
“While we mourn the dead, we have to fight like hell for the people who are still living,” DeMarco said. “We don’t want to be back here next year.”
Billy Penn attended the vigil, and we live-tweeted what we saw. Here’s how Philly mourned the people who died from addiction last year: