Officials Trying To Identify Caskets Displaced By Katrina

As the rumbling of heavy equipment echoes through her once-serene, waterfront cemetery in Biloxi, Kim Powers longs for a day when the dead can rest in peace.

Hurricane Katrina ripped open mausoleums at Southern Memorial Park, sucked caskets out of their tombs, flattened offices and left the entire place looking "like a war zone,'' she said.

Powers, a partner in Knoxville, Tenn.-based Bridges Funeral Co., said three of the company's cemeteries on the Mississippi coast were heavily damaged by Katrina's punishing storm surge. Others from Alabama to New Orleans also were damaged, but most caskets remained in place.

In Biloxi, Katrina ripped the doors from concrete mausoleums, exposing the few caskets that remained. Other caskets - some broken - were left scattered along the beach among piles of debris.

At least 50 caskets that were displaced from Southern Memorial Park and another 10 that were disinterred at Live Oaks in Pass Christian had not been identified as of Tuesday, Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said.

It could be weeks before officials know exactly how many caskets are missing, he said, adding that one casket was found as recently as Sunday buried in sand and debris on the beach.

"We'll get them back where they belong,'' he said. "Will we get all of them returned? That's a hard question to answer. The reality is that (some) could have been swept into the Gulf.''

Caskets often float, but none were seen drifting during four helicopter flights since the storm. It's possible some sank and others are still buried in tons of debris, Hargrove said.

Funeral directors and cemetery owners say that the identification process could be painfully slow for many families. Some newer caskets have information tubes attached to them that identify the remains and some have so-called identabands. Others have no identification at all.

Information tubes have been used since the mid-1960s. But, floods in the Midwest that displaced caskets revealed that identification papers in the tubes don't stand up over time, said Michael Hudgins, manager of the Natchez Trace Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Madison.

"It's very possible it will be difficult to identify these caskets,'' he said.

Cemeteries often keep descriptions of the caskets so the process of elimination could be used. But, if cemetery offices were destroyed and records were lost, that too could be difficult, said Larry Chedotal, president of the Mississippi Cemetery Association, who also owns two cemeteries in Avondale near New Orleans.

"I'm sure some families can help determine that information, but it's going to be very emotional,'' he said.

New Orleans' historic cemeteries, known as "cities of the dead,'' were damaged but displaced caskets from the city's aboveground tombs were not the problem officials had originally feared.

Chedotal said two mausoleums were damaged at his New Orleans properties but the caskets weren't moved.

Cemeteries in Alabama were damaged but there were no reports of displaced caskets, said Leroy Reddick, a forensic pathologist for the Mobile County Coroner's Office.

Meanwhile, Powers is working with distraught families and is anxious to return the disinterred caskets to "their final resting place with as much dignity as they had the first time around.''

"These are people's loved ones.'' she said. "And this was once a beautiful cemetery.''

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)