Post-hurricane dilemma: care for the dead

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) --Not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated U.S. cities along the Gulf of Mexico, news media captured an image as indelible as it was poignant: a woman weeping alongside the body of her common-law husband, who had died of cancer amid the rising floodwaters of New Orleans. With his body wrapped in a sheet, she found little solace and even less help until, for $20, a truck driver carted both the woman and her dead companion in a flatbed truck filled with downed tree limbs to a hospital.

It is "an image that's stayed with me the last couple of days, the woman with the body of her husband on a raft, carrying him down the streets, floating his body to some place of proper repose," said Msgr. James Moroney, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Liturgy.

"What was she looking for? She was looking for a way to carry him to his place of rest. She was looking for the arms of God," he added.

The woman's plight brings home one dilemma that will confront Catholics throughout the hurricane-stricken areas of the Gulf Coast: how to deal with the dead with dignity.

Hundreds were feared killed in the hurricane, although no comprehensive tally was available in the days immediately afterward. Catholics were no less likely to be victims than those of other faiths.

In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where the hurricane struck hardest, the situation could be more acute, since about 35 percent of all residents of the archdiocese are Catholic; in the United States as a whole, the figure is closer to 24 percent.

Both Msgr. Moroney and Mark Christian, president of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference, made comparisons between Katrina's devastation and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Although the loss (in 2001) was tragic, it certainly wasn't as widespread," Christian said. "Our infrastructure was fairly intact on 9/11 -- it's not here."

Msgr. Moroney said there are "a number of strategies that could be employed that remind us all in a particularly tragic way of what took place immediately after 9/11 -- large numbers of Catholics who needed to be buried in the full course of Catholic burial rites."

The primary goal was to "provide for the greatest respect of ... the body of the deceased -- (to give) the fullest extent of Catholic burial rites wherever possible," he said. He acknowledged that in Katrina's aftermath "the first challenge is simply getting the bodies to a place where bodies can be preserved to an extent that burial is possible."

The next concern "would be the celebration of funeral rites to whatever extent possible. Just as neighboring dioceses have embraced the family members of these dioceses that have suffered so terribly," Msgr. Moroney said, "at the same time I know that the neighboring dioceses would welcome the opportunity to be of assistance in the burial of those who have died."

Msgr. Moroney and Christian each have seen other images on television of grave markers upset and uprooted by the hurricane and its flooding, and of floodwaters halfway up the above-ground burial vaults in New Orleans, much of which lies below sea level.

"We're dealing with massive destruction at the cemeteries themselves," said Christian, who is also executive director of Catholic cemeteries for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.

Catholic cemetery directors in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., "offered to send crews to help. But again, we need some direction. That's kind of where we're at, really," Christian said. "We're waiting for further information."

"We're waiting to hear from some of the local dioceses down there," he added. "We haven't heard from any of them." The cemetery organization has members in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and dioceses of Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles, La., and Biloxi, Miss. Said Christian: "I don't have the answer for you. I wish I did."

Msgr. Moroney said it is not an absolute requirement to have the body of the deceased present at a funeral Mass to be able to pray for the dead. "We experienced that in a painful way in (the case of) 9/11, often when there was just ashes and sometimes no body at all. I suspect we will find those circumstances at the end of this recovery process."

He added that Catholic rites "are very adaptable to a variety of circumstances even in our daily life. In this extraordinary circumstance, their adaptability will become all the more evident."

Msgr. Moroney said one of the corporal works of mercy is burial of the dead. "At a time like this, this comes home in a very concrete and painful way," he said. "This is a critical point at this stage of recovery to whatever extent that is possible."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service

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