Sleeping with the Dead

This is a story about people working around the clock in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to collect and preserve the bodies of the dead for funerals and burials. I was reminded of it by the awful events in Houston brought about by Hurricane Harvey. I’m sure similar stories are unfolding there. I wrote this piece years ago, as part of the many months of coverage following the storm to which I contributed.

Biloxi after Katrina. (Source: NPR)

Jennifer Johnson no longer gets chills when she hears them. In the business they are called rattles or crackles. They are the sounds a body produces when trapped air makes its way back through the larynx. A death groan.

She had begun her mortician apprenticeship three months prior and had been working in Wiggins when Katrina crushed the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Wiggins suffered through the Hurricane as most inland towns in Mississippi did. Lashing winds hurled clusters of trees into homes, roads and power lines. Normal life paused for weeks.

Johnson hunkered down in a bathroom at the home of her boss, Wiggins Coroner Mike Lott, along with his wife, daughter and family pets. They received a death call the next day. During the storm, an elderly man suffered a heart attack at the local hospital.

“I picked him up,” said Johnson. “My boss and I took him to the funeral home and embalmed him with a generator running the embalming machine.”

The rain outside stole away their light, so Johnson held a battery-powered lantern while her boss, a man with 30 years of experience in the business, performed the procedure. Then she was left alone.

As she prepared the body for viewing, the only light in the room provided by opened doors, the body gasped. Johnson said she went outside for a few minutes and collected herself.

“I thought, if this freaks me out then maybe I’m not cut out for this.” This would not be her final moment of doubt.

Wiggins is a small town with a little more than 4,000 residents. It is one of those places with one McDonald’s, one Wal-Mart, and one funeral home. Johnson said being in the funeral business in a small town means one has to have a heightened sense of community. You see the same people every day, then one day you are applying their final coat of blush.

Wiggins sits 35 miles north of the Gulf Coast, where Katrina hit the worst, kicking over cities like anthills. So, when a Gulfport funeral director called for help, Johnson and her boss were among the many to drive south.

Jason Green rode out the hurricane in Riemann Funeral Home four blocks from the beach. He remembers it beginning at about 2 a.m. with portions of the roof peeling away. He and ten employees with some of their family members sought shelter in the building and moved from room to room as water and debris lapped inside. They watched as a tornado shredded the recreation center on one side; the winds crumpled a fast-food restaurant on the other. Yet, the funeral home remained intact.

He said he stayed with the building instead of his home because, as director, he did not want to abandon the deceased inside.

“That’s what we do, we take care of people,” said Green. “There really wasn’t time to do anything; our plan was always to remain with the deceased.” They received three truckloads of bodies before evening.

Green said he and six of his staff loaded into vehicles and meandered their way through debris and sludge with the help of law enforcement to get to Biloxi. They passed rooftops, cars and appliances. Entire homes were turned inside out and spilled all the way to the ocean.

Once in Biloxi, they went to the police department and received a list of sites where bodies could be found. Many lie along or beside roads where people tried to escape at the last second. Some tried to ride out the storm like Green and his employees, but the flood waters rose too high.

The search went on into the night with the assistance of helicopters and floodlights; before dawn they discovered eight bodies.

“At one point we were half a mile from Point Cadet and could drive no farther,” said Green. “We had to walk and carry bodies the distance.”

The following day, the bodies began to accumulate by the hour. “One family actually brought their loved one to us in the back of a truck,” said Green.

Mississippi does not have a regional morgue. Green said the state has never appropriated funds to build such a facility, so coroners must rely on local funeral homes to gather bodies after a disaster. Until Katrina, the boundaries of this system had never been tested.

With his funeral home damaged, communication limited, power still days away and some of his staff rendered homeless, Green said he tried to stay focused on his job. It was clear he needed help. He was able to get messages to the state association in Jackson through local law enforcement.

From the relatively unharmed capital, a coordination effort began. Employees and volunteers from funeral homes across the state geared up and headed toward the flattened coast.

By Wednesday, a caravan of funeral home employees from as far north as Tupelo had arrived in Gulfport.

“We met them in our parking lot in tears,” said Green.

When Johnson and her boss arrived in Gulfport a week later, there were eight refrigerated 18-wheelers filled with bodies parked outside Riemann Funeral Home.

Specialists from the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team under FEMA, a special group of 1,200 forensic doctors from across the nation, were also there. The bodies turning up a week or so after the storm were too disfigured to identify by normal methods, so DMORT stepped in and assisted with advanced testing techniques.

The funeral home became the nexus of a large scale body recovery and identification operation. More than 40 coroners from other states including Ohio, Georgia and Texas were working with cadaver dogs and communicating across a reserved radio frequency. They dug through the rubble and coordinated their efforts while the National Guard patrolled. At night they slept on church pews in the funeral home.

Despite having issues of their own, funeral homes across the state did what they could.

Bobby Makew, manager of Moore Funeral Home in Hattiesburg, said his business operated without power for almost four days.

“The first couple of days, in our emergency times, the Department of Transportation provided fuel for our hearses and such,” said Makew. “The main thing was when we did have deaths occur, families couldn’t move about any more than we could. We were both handicapped.”

Makew said blocked cemeteries were a main concern; downed trees also severely damaged them. Yet, his funeral home and others, like Moore Funeral Home in Wiggins, still managed to send volunteers.

“I went down two times,” said Johnson. “I helped by pulling identified bodies out of a refrigerated 18-wheeler and placing them into caskets.”

The trucks remained parked outside for two weeks before FEMA set up a temporary morgue at the Gulfport Biloxi Regional Airport. Green said until then locals avoided the area because of the smell. It was later moved to a more central facility at the Gulfport Sportsplex. DMORT remained on site until October.

Johnson said when she neared the trucks the smell struck her like a brick to the face. It permeated everything and was at times impossible to bear.

“There’s a bank across the street from Riemann,” said Johnson. “I remember a woman standing in front. She was smoking a cigarette, and when she saw us pulling body bags she covered her eyes. I remember thinking how sorry I was.

“Going to school and learning about death is one thing but seeing it face to face is different. It will make or break you as a mortician or a funeral director. At first I didn’t want to help, the stench was so bad I just stood there with my arms crossed thinking, ‘Okay, you have this under control.’ But eventually I just jumped in.”

Johnson returned once more to help and said she found strength in her boss’s confidence and collected demeanor. Her small town funeral experience also helped. The idea of providing closure for families who were still looking for loved ones was important to her, she said.

Green said he would always be grateful to those like Johnson who came to his town’s aid.

“I’ll never be able to thank these people enough. They came and dealt with things they have never dealt with in their entire life.”

Green added that it gives him comfort to know they did everything they could do to give respect to those who lost their lives. He added if he was in another line of work he would have hoped there was someone out there doing the job he and his volunteers did.

Johnson said her moment of doubt is far behind her now. She says she feels she can handle anything after helping on the coast.

“I feel as though I have seen more things in one year of this business than some people do in thirty,” she said. She has heard several groans in the months since, and none have troubled her, she added.

“We slept 10 yards from those trailers every night,” said Green. “We never left any remains unattended. Some say, ‘What’s the difference?’ I say it makes a lot of difference.”