Grafton man memorializes COVID-19 deaths with massive flag display

445

By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Flags sit in a landscaped display in Mike Labee’s yard.
Photo/Dakota Antelman

Grafton – COVID-19 hurt Mike Labee’s business. It downsized his wedding. And, overall, it’s kept him quarantined like the rest of the region’s residents. 

Recognizing, though, the ways this crisis has hit others even harder, he’s adorned his front lawn with more than 8,000 American flags to commemorate each life lost to coronavirus in Massachusetts.

It’s a way to make physical the often-intangible loss the region has suffered. 

“When I start feeling a little bit down, I take a walk into the front yard and look at the flags,” he said. “That puts it in perspective.” 

Perspective is important to Labee. The owner of All Phase Glass, a property maintenance company in town, he’s seen his client pool dry up in recent months. 

He also had to rework wedding plans, downsizing from a sprawling event with 225 guests, to an intimate 25 person gathering earlier this month in his yard. 

“At the end of the day, everybody was safe,” he says, though. “Everybody is healthy.” 

Thus, Labee says, he does not want stories and social media posts about his display to focus on him or his experience. 

He’s simply saddened by the events of the past three months, and heartbroken by the scale of all this loss. 

“We just try to help out,” he said.

Labee planted his first flag in March, within a week of the first Massachusetts deaths due to COVID-19. At the time, he said, he expected to plant a few hundred flags over the spring and summer. 

Now, though, he’s already assembled a tightly packed field of 8,000. 

“It just kept growing and growing and growing,” he said.

Diane Libby, a Grafton resident who visited the display June 26, echoed the sense of grim awe in the face of it all. 

“When you look at the number of flags here and you realize that there’s one unhappy person for each of these, [you think] ‘That’s why we wear the masks and stay six feet apart,’” she said.

Creating such an image has come with a cost, though. 

Labee estimates that he’s spent close to $15,000 and countless hours on the flag displays so far. 

Maintenance and assembly is, after all, both expensive and labor intensive.

Each flag rests in special wooden mounts Labee assembles ahead of time. Beyond that, he’s laid stones and landscaped around the areas the flags occupy while building a large sign in front of his lawn explaining the meaning of the entire display. 

He says he and his five kids are out working on the flags almost every day, adding new ones and maintaining existing clusters. 

Inside, Labee says, he also just received a new shipment of 1,500 more flags in grim anticipation of more deaths to come. 

“I can’t stop now,” he said. 

Between 50 and 100 cars drive down Labee’s back road each day, some coming from as far as Pennsylvania to see the display that’s been widely shared in some social media circles.  

Labee and his family often interact with these passers-by. Other times, they say, they’re happily surprised as they simply notice people stopped along the road taking photos. 

“That’s what it’s out there for,” Labee said. “It’s for people to come and see it.”

Labee eyes the flags every day and says he’s regularly taken aback by the gravity of this moment. He’s never seen “anything like this.” 

Along the same lines, he wishes communities would come together amid such crisis to lean on one another and recognize the thousands of individual lives already cut short. 

He hopes his flags can help that process for some. 

“We all need to step back and say, ‘thank Jesus that we’re here,’” he said. “Let’s work our differences out and move on together.”