'Trees of Life' Service of Remembrance

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Hundreds of pandemic key workers and members of the public gathered at Westminster Abbey for ‘Trees of Life’ - A Service of Remembrance with the blessing of saplings for a living memorial to honour those who served and died in the COVID-19 pandemic 

Today, representatives from the NHS, emergency services and other key workers, joined hundreds of members of the public at Westminster Abbey for ‘Trees of Life’, a special Service of Remembrance. Organised by the National Memorial Arboretum and the National Forest Company, the service honoured the bravery and dedication of those who served the nation throughout the pandemic and remembered all those who died as a result of COVID-19 in the UK. 

“During the pandemic, health workers were joined by armies of everyday heroes dedicated to serving our country; from food and service workers who kept us in groceries, power, and water; to scientists and technicians who developed vaccines; to the Armed Forces and volunteers who administered them,” said Philippa Rawlinson, Director of the National Memorial Arboretum. “Their valiant efforts meant the pandemic was bridled within months, not decades; at a cost to human life in the hundreds of thousands, not tens of million. Today we paid tribute to their unwavering service and remembered those who lost their lives during one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history.”

The Abbey was dressed with trees and saplings by renowned floral designer Shane Connolly. During the service, these trees were blessed by representatives from diverse Communities of Faith, preparing them for planting in a new glade at the National Memorial Arboretum in the National Forest, as the first step in the delivery of an inspirational living memorial to the pandemic within a 25-acre extension to the Arboretum.

“As the Nation’s year-round place to remember, we have been inundated with requests for us to commemorate the incredible service and sacrifice of key workers during the pandemic alongside providing a space in memory of those who tragically lost their lives,” continued Philippa. “Together with the National Forest Company, we are developing an ambitious plan to transform a tract of former quarry land into an inspirational living landscape, representative of the changing seasons, where people can reflect and remember. The saplings blessed during the ‘Trees of Life’ service will be incorporated into a beautiful new glade at the Arboretum, as we begin to deliver on our vision for a dedicated new Remembrance space connected to the pandemic.”   

“It is fitting to host this living memorial in the National Forest in the heart of the country,” said John Everitt, Chief Executive of the National Forest Company. “The National Forest is a symbol of regeneration and testimony to the power of trees to heal a landscape, lives and livelihoods. The trees blessed in this service will outlive us all, helping to honour the past, offer solace in the present and connect us to future generations.”  

NHS nurse Becky Warren admires the saplings that will form the Trees of Life glade
Picture partnership/Westminster Abbey

The service was led by the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, Dean of Westminster Abbey and included a testimony delivered by Philippa Rawlinson, Director of the National Memorial Arboretum, alongside readings from Baroness Morgan, Chair of the UK Commission on Covid Commemoration and John Everitt, Chief Executive of the National Forest Company.

Several key worker representatives read prayers during the service; Ajay Bhatt, a customer service manager for Transport for London, Richard Webb-Stevens QAM, a paramedic serving with the London Ambulance Service Motorbike Response Unit, Becky Warren, an NHS nurse at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire and Armed Forces reservist for the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (Rotove), and Rose Morgan BEM, a supermarket worker who conceived the idea for a nationwide campaign offering millions of free sunflower seeds to customers to inspire hope.

“I have severe asthma and caught Covid-19 early in the pandemic before there was widespread testing - after feeling fine it suddenly hit me like a steamroller,” said Richard Webb-Stevens QAM. “My oxygen levels plummeted and at one point I felt like I was certainly going to die. My London ambulance service colleagues treated me and took me to the hospital where I finally stabilised after life-saving treatment in the resuscitation department. It was agonising not being able to return to work immediately, knowing the immense pressures facing my friends & colleagues in the service and it was a relief when I could get back to supporting crews and responding to calls across London.”

Michael Rosen reads his poem, These are the hands [Credit Picture PartnershipWestminster Abbey]
Picture partnership/Westminster Abbey

Michael Rosen, celebrated author and former Children’s Laureate, read his poem ‘These are the Hands’ which he wrote to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the NHS. Early in the pandemic, the author was hospitalised with Covid-19 after he began struggling to breathe; severely ill he required months of hospital treatment during which he was placed into an induced coma for 40 days.

“It is impossible to fathom the devotion of the NHS workers who cared for me and thousands of others,” said Michael Rosen. “They quite literally saved my life, pulling me back from the shadow of death. But more than that, I was amazed at how they continued to provide unyielding love and care despite facing an unprecedented challenge that stretched beyond their limits and left them suffering the trauma inflicted by watching so many people die despite their care.”

 The Abbey also hosted “The Leaves of the Trees” art installation, created by Sculptor Peter Walker, which has been touring the country. This display across the floor of the Abbey was designed as a reflective memorial, made up of 5000 steel leaves with the word HOPE written upon them. It creates a beautiful impression of fallen autumn leaves appearing as though naturally scattered by the wind. The leaves symbolise the past, that which has transpired and hope for the future.   

Dean of Westminster during The Trees of Life Service [Credit Picture PartnershipWestminster Abbey]
Picture partnership/Westminster Abbey