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.