Tuesday, August 29, 2006
No jazz funerals for these victims
I'm new to this town. Just moved in last week. Before I came, I read that in New Orleans they embrace death as part of life. When someone dies, a jazz band plays as the funeral procession leaves the church. It starts with a dirge on the block where the church is located. But when they round the corner, they turn up the tempo and march through the streets celebrating their fallen friend's life.

One of my first assignments was to do a story on 50 victims from Hurricane Katrina who remain unidentified. The city of New Orleans is storing the bodies in a warehouse a couple blocks from the Superdome. The warehouse also holds 51 identified victims whose families haven't been able to pick the body up.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, by appointment only, funeral homes can arrange to pick up the identified bodies at the warehouse. It took us a while, but we found the unmarked warehouse on a rainy day last week.

When we arrived, a white minivan converted to a hearse was pulling up. We watched as the middle of five bay doors slowly pulled up to reveal the dimly lit interior. One hundred and one coffins were lined up side-by-side on the bare concrete floor. The city coroner told us the silver-colored coffins were the same kind in which they bring dead soldiers back from Iraq. Each coffin was tightly wrapped in plastic, the same kind you put on the outside of your house before you put siding up to keep the water out.

I was struck by the irony of these caskets wrapped in plastic to keep the water out. Most, if not all, these people drowned in their homes.

Morbid as it seems, we wanted to see inside the warehouse to show viewers what it is like one year later. The coroner told us it would be undignified to shoot video of the coffins. Standing on the sidewalk in the rain, looking inside the warehouse at the rows of coffins, made me question just how dignified it was to leave these people in a warehouse instead of burying them.

A year to the day after Hurricane Katrina, there is no plan to bury the unidentified dead. The DNA samples have been taken and they're waiting for matches. The city says they'll keep the nameless bodies in the nameless warehouse for as long as FEMA pays the rent.

The coroner couldn't or wouldn't give us a breakdown of men, women, children, age, race or gender. They are identified only by a square black and white sign with a number posted on the wall above their coffins -- numbers one through 50 still waiting for their jazz funeral.
Posted By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Producer: 4:08 PM ET
How morbid and gross! This is not a refrigerated warehouse? Just thinking of those bodies (human beings) being left to rot in a warehouse for a year makes me sick. Katrina continues to inflict catasropic pain on New Orleans and the people all along the gulf coast. This is shocking. All these people deserve their dignity. I hope each and every one of those deceased will recieve their well deserved jazz send off, and soon.
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann Taylor Nacogdoches, Tx : 4:26 PM ET
There seems to have been no dignity in death for those who died during Katrina. First the dead were left on the roofs of cars or in the street for days until the proper resources could be brought to New Orleans to collect bodies. And now, a year after Katrina what have we really done for these victims? These people, unidentified or not, lived a life that should be honored with proper care and respect. I have been to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The tomb is guarded at all times and a wreath is laid to honor the lives of these unidentified men. How is it that in America we honor some lives with daily ceremonies, while others are left in an unmarked warehouse? I am sure that the medical examiner and his staff have done everything in their power to identify these people and return their bodies to their loved ones, but now it is time for the city or the state to take control and give those whom we may never identify a proper burial.
Posted By Anonymous Kimberly Miller, Hiram, OH : 4:33 PM ET
I can't help but think of the tomb of the unknown soldier. There has to be a way to give these individuals a dignified resting place. What FEMA has managed to do again is neither dignified nor proper! Leave it to a government entity to reduce lives to a balance sheet.
Posted By Anonymous RL, Appleton, WI : 4:42 PM ET
I've been in New Orleans when there was a funeral procession like the one you described. It's funny, because I had always heard about them and thought it to be a rather morbid idea. But it actually was quite comforting. Like I've said in earlier comments on this blog, New Orleans is unlike any city I've ever been to. To say it's unique is an understatement because it's one of a kind in so many respects. To celebrate death is to not fear it. It's part of the cycle. But the deaths caused by Katrina were not part of that cycle, and that's the ironic part for me. This was a city filled with vivid characters and a culture that can't be found anywhere else. Now, there will be no procession for the dead who were deserted during Katrina.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie Darby, Baton Rouge, Louisiana : 4:43 PM ET
That's pretty horrible to think of all those bodies left to rot! I suppose the identified ones are from families that have moved away and cannot make any arrangements for their loved ones. Is there not some kind of circumstances where the state will pay for this? This is just insult added to injury for the deceased and their families.
Posted By Anonymous Bev. Whitby Ontario Canada : 4:43 PM ET
Eric - That is just HORRIBLE !!

How can we as human beings and Americans treat our dead like that ?!!

I guess with New Orleans I can believe that there is NO plan to bury their dead. Maybe a mass grave to honor these dead people? As in the "Unknowns of Katrina".
Posted By Anonymous Debbie, Chicago, IL : 5:01 PM ET
We seem to a nation bent on building huge memorials. Maybe a fitting memorial to Katrina would be a mausoleum wall for those only known to God, those whose families have been dislocated and lost all, and their compatriots washed out to sea. Do we dare mention those whose bones are still in the rubble? Maybe no memorial will be needed, but this would be fitting.
Posted By Anonymous linda, bella vista, ar : 5:04 PM ET
Dear Eric,

I was shocked and saddened by your post today. If the city had treated these people half as well during Katrina as they are treating these coffins maybe they would still be alive today. It is a disgrace! It was undignified to allow these people to die like this in the first place, but it is an additional insult to just leave them in a warehouse.

I am not surprised that they did not want you to film the coffins, this is the same type of excuse the government used when reporters wanted to film the coffins coming back from Iraq. The only thing the government cares about is how it makes them look. Thanks for keeping them honest.
Jo Ann
Posted By Anonymous Jo Ann, North Royalton, Ohio : 5:11 PM ET
Eric: I'm curious as to how much FEMA is paying rent for this facility. Wouldn't that money be better spent instead on a decent burial for these people? The Katrina situation never ceases to amaze me!
Posted By Anonymous Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 5:41 PM ET

As undignified and deplorable as it is that the dead are being left to decay in an unmarked, un-air conditioned warehouse "somewhere in New Orleans" (and I am certain the families of the victims would be horrified), sadly, I'm afraid, it will end up on a long list of "shocking but true Katrina stories," which always serve to remind me of the inexcusable suffering of those who waited, hoped & prayed for help to come in those days after Katrina made landfall; I can't imagine their desperation, trying to understand why no help had come.

Since then, the government's lack of focused commitment to the recovery effort is despicable. While waiting to check out at the supermarket yesterday, I overheard a woman complaining about a magazine cover that was 'having to rehash that Katrina story all over again, as if we didn't get enough of it last year" -- but we can never get enough of Brangelina or TomKat, can we?

It's truly sickening to me, to realize it's been a whole year. . . and this is the best America can do? How can we sleep at night? We ought to be ashamed, every one of us.

I do want to thank CNN for it's efforts at being the 'Voice of Katrina.' Like thousands of others who live "everyplace else," I am a NOLAphile from way back, and what has happened in the past year is breaking my heart.

CNN, please don't let us forget!
Posted By Anonymous JoAnn, Tucson, AZ : 5:52 PM ET
Having not been to New Orleans or having to suffer the immense grief of losing loved ones in the hurricane I can only imagine that this atrocity of warehoused bodies has added more misery and grief. It seems to me that there could still be some outside help from the government to assist in the identification and burial of the deceased. I was disappointed to see the President speaking to the people of New Orleans as though he had been right there throughout the whole tragedy. Does he think people have that short of a memory-that people would forget that he did not respond for several days?
Posted By Anonymous Melody Chapin, Harbor Springs : 6:05 PM ET
Undignified is they way in which these people died. To have abandoned these people leaving them face down, dead and bloated in the street was not only despicable and atrocious, but a complete disregard for humanity.
To stack these coffins in a warehouse to be long forgotten is to further the injustice being committed.
Although this is quite appalling and just down right shameful, I cannot say that I am shocked. For the incompetence of the American government during this entire crisis has been overwhelming. To videotape or not to videotape these coffins shouldn't be the question being posed now, for there is no dignity left for these poor people to lose.
Posted By Anonymous Jen, Hamilton, Ontario : 6:22 PM ET
Just when I thought the governments of Louisiana and New Orleans couldn't go any further down the feeding chain of disparity and ineptitude...How pitiful! I guess they didn't want the world to see how dysfunctional it all is some days in this state where they can't even store the dead in a dignified manner (much less tackle big issues like rebuilding healthcare and communities). It's bad enough these people died because of horrific breakdowns in the system. It's even worse that they are kept in a warehouse like they are pieces of oilfield equipment. All human life deserves dignity in death, not just those whose loved ones can afford the jazz funeral. Somebody please send the mayor and governor the memo.
Posted By Anonymous TA Cheramie, Berwick, LA : 7:59 PM ET
Instead of the unknown soldier, perhpas the memorial should be to "the forgotten citizens", One memorial to Katrina victims has simple posts showing the varying heights of the floodwaters in New Orleans. These people need to be memorialized, so that no ONE FORGETS that ordinary citizens of the US died in a major city believing in the throoughness of their protection system or should the levees fail, that there would be help if not in 1 day at least in 2 days or so.
Posted By Anonymous Ruth Brewington, Metairie, LA : 10:09 PM ET
I have a friend who was one of the medical examiners that spent months in Lousiana processing bodies. To this day, she says that she believes that there are bodies that have not been recovered in the rubble that is left. She also says that even if all that is left are bones, science has advanced to the point where DNA can still be extracted to ID the body. It takes extra time to process, but it can be done.

I hope that each body that is found will be identified so that the family and friends can give him/her a proper burial.
Posted By Anonymous Genevieve Matthews, El Paso, TX : 12:59 AM ET
It would be auspicious for them to deal with a date for giving these bodies a proper burial as to be dignified. But this is where FEMA decides to spend its money?
Posted By Anonymous israel,raleigh,nc : 3:19 AM ET
This is truly distressing. For those who really want to find out why these bodies are still in a warehouse after a year, I suggest they call Mayor Ray Nagin and ask him (hopefully he has a listed number). Although FEMA may be paying for the warehouse, the responsibility and jurisdiction for handling this lies with the City of New Orleans and not with the federal government.
Posted By Anonymous Mike, Baytown, Texas : 9:22 AM ET
In typical media fashion, if you don't get to video what you want you will put a different slant on what you see. The gentleman in charge of that warehouse did the right thing in not allowing you to video inside. How shamefull of you to want to sensationalize the situation. That place may only be a warehouse, but it is just as solumn as a funeral home. It's not the velvet curtains that make a funeral home; it's the respect of those who enter that give it dignity. What is the government supposed to do? (and by government I mean the LOCAL GOVERNMENT)They can't very well dispose of the bodies properly without the families having opportunity to claim them. If you want to blame someone, blame the families who have allowed the bodies of their loved ones to sit for so long. Or don't blame anyone at all. It is a difficult situation that I am sure the people running it are doing the best they can. If you want to find out who is really responsible for the situation why not ask the people in the warehouse? I can bet you would get an ear-full, if they were willing to talk to you at all. I can asure you that if they don't it's not because they are covering for the government. They likely don't appreciate your hunger for a juicy story as opposed to drawing attention to a need that has not been met.
Posted By Anonymous Juli, Lubbock Texas : 10:15 AM ET
A behind the scenes look at "Anderson Cooper 360°" and the stories it covers, written by Anderson Cooper and the show's correspondents and producers.

    What's this?
CNN Comment Policy: CNN encourages you to add a comment to this discussion. You may not post any unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or other material that would violate the law. Please note that CNN makes reasonable efforts to review all comments prior to posting and CNN may edit comments for clarity or to keep out questionable or off-topic material. All comments should be relevant to the post and remain respectful of other authors and commenters. By submitting your comment, you hereby give CNN the right, but not the obligation, to post, air, edit, exhibit, telecast, cablecast, webcast, re-use, publish, reproduce, use, license, print, distribute or otherwise use your comment(s) and accompanying personal identifying information via all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity. CNN Privacy Statement.