Where are the funerals?

This blog entry was posted on Sept. 13, 2005.

It was two weeks ago tonight that the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina really sank in. It was already clear that hundreds, maybe thousands, had perished, washed away in storm surges or rising floodwaters from a ruptured levee. This is how we began the story that we wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News 14 days ago:

FRANK MILLS had just watched two bodies float by, and he was sure he was next.

Mills, 56, lived in a boarding house with three elderly residents in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, a low-income section that has borne some of the brunt of the flooding that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

That's where Mills was early yesterday, when the floodwaters from the city's breached levees began swirling into the house, rising toward its ceiling. Hours later, he told a reporter that he had headed for the front door, but one of the other men went to a bedroom to retrieve something, and a woman went with him.

"And when I saw her in the hallway, she was floating face up," Mills told the Associated Press yesterday, adding that he never saw the other man again. Mills changed direction and made it to the roof of the one-story home's porch.

There, he tried desperately - and unsuccessfully - to pull another elderly man to safety. But that man slipped away.

Frank Mills didn't know their names. Neither did we. Two weeks later, we still don't.

And that is a national disgrace.

For days we have seen the pictures -- bodies floating down waterlogged streets, face down, bloated, completely stripped of the humanity that once coursed through them, and completely stripped of dignity as well.

Most of the corpses are alone, like this one that a New Jersey-based rescue team found in a bedroom in three feet of water. But some are in groups, like the five corpses that a Marine amphibious team saw floating in a row on a street in the lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.

We've seen stories about the larger clusters, like the nursing home where 34 elderly people were left to die. We've read lots of articles about the cavernous morgue in St. Gabriel, La., where bodies are said to arrive by the truckload. We heard today that the state of Louisiana had to hire a mortuary company because FEMA couldn't get it together to award a contract to process all the corpses.

We even saw a number today: 423 just in New Orleans (with more than 200 fatalities in Mississippi a seeming afterthought).

But we haven't seen a name -- not officially anyway. Not one single name -- the thing that turns an empty corpse back into a person. So far we've seen one story (in the Washington Post) that took a massive amount of reporting to come up with the life stories of five of the dead -- five lonely faces out of the hundreds.

So much death.

And not a single funeral.

It's been 14 days now. Where are the funerals?

New Orleans is famous for its funerals, you know. Jazz funerals -- an untidy gumbo of grief and joy, pouring out through the streets of a timeworn city, punctuated by the music of the living. We've never been to one, but here's a description of the recent funeral for a prominent jazz musician. Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen:

A line of tubas, a man with a red tuba, all the celebrants filled with sorrow, but also exalting Tuba Fats with signs and pictures, in fine suits and fancy dresses, hot colors and cool hairdos. They were alternately somber or cheered as the mood of the music changed: slow dirge, medium hymn, fast march. Probably 2,500 made their way with the horse drawn casket to the French Quarter, down Bourbon Street — a rare honor due to Tuba's daily play on Jackson Square — where tourists gawked and clamored. A somber stop at St. Louis Cathedral, where a priest blessed the bier while those who knew Tuba Fats cried out his goodness. Starting up and out of the Quarter the several blocks long throng sang "Down By the Riverside" with the line "Ain't gonna study war no more" resonating about life here and abroad.

Now, New Orleans has been overrun by death, and yet there are no funerals. And if our government has its way, they could be weeks away. They are taking their time in collecting and tallying the dead, and shipping the bodies to that remote place, far from home. When journalists get too close to the reality of death, they are driven back:

The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans. If reporters wrote stories or took pictures of body recoveries, they would be reported and face consequences, he said, including a loss of access for up-close coverage of certain military operations.

The names will come in good time -- most of them, anyway -- but they want us to look the other way for now, hoping we will forget. Because when the names, and the tales of love and loss that accompany them, finally come known, that will bethe day when America truly realizes the horror of the humanity that was lost along the Gulf Coast -- including the people who could have been saved by a speedy government response.

And so we will not forget.

But it is up to us. We can't trust the government. We, the American people, will have to keep our own book of the dead. Hopefully, there will be Web sites along the lines of this one, dedicated to Iraq casualties. An accurate count is the only way to keep them honest.

And we must not just tally their number, but we must tell their stories, once we learn who they are. We promise to do what we can here at Attytood. Hopefully, others in the broad community of writers and bloggers out there will do the rest.

We can argue until Kingdom Come about policy, and who's to blame -- and we should. But until we give the dead their proper burial, and until we hear their jazz, New Orleans -- and America -- will not be whole again.