As COVID-19 deaths increased in New York City in spring 2020, we began collecting names and stories of people who died from local obituaries, Legacy.com and unions. Our early analysis showed that the public obituaries skewed white, male and toward the wealthier enclaves of the city. Yet, COVID-19 was killing Black and Latino New Yorkers at twice the rate of white residents. People of color, including immigrants living in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, were rarely reflected in the obituary pages.

To address this gap, we initiated an extensive community engagement campaign asking folks to share stories of those they lost through text, email, voicemail and a Google form. To date, we’ve heard from more than 1,000 people who lost someone. The project has evolved into a living memorial of more than 2,500 people who died — all vetted with public records, searchable, filterable and grouped by occupation — and with nearly 500 obituaries written free of charge.

While traditional obituaries in local media are about 70% white, MISSING THEM’s community submissions, fueled by our engagement effort, more closely mirror the demographics of those who died.

From tips and community conversations, we’ve published more than 20 accountability stories, including investigations of deaths in city jails and nursing homes.

THE CITY also held a three-day online event in December 2020 to remember and celebrate the lives of those lost. The event included hundreds of family members along with social service providers and advocates. They shared stories, sang songs, and took part in writing and poetry workshops. This event led to a new live online play based on MISSING THEM’s obituaries produced by The Working Theater, an award-winning Off-Broadway theater company.

MISSING THEM is in collaboration with Columbia Journalism School, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and Boston College. Since summer 2020, students and graduate fellows have worked on the project daily. We’ve also trained more than 30 volunteers to help research, interview and write obituaries.

MISSING THEM is the most comprehensive memorial of New Yorkers who died due to COVID-19. Recognizing this, the City of New York reached out to partner with us for the citywide “Day of Remembrance” ceremony. Images of those in our memorial were projected onto the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a ceremony marking the anniversary of the first COVID-19 death in New York.