BATON ROUGE, La. — As hundreds of Louisiana families wait to claim the bodies of loved ones still lying anonymously in crowded morgues, the state medical examiner is investigating at least one parish coroner for allegedly disposing of Hurricane Katrina victims improperly.
"We have been informed that there have been cremations of evacuees, either identified or unidentified, without the consent of the next of kin and without the consent" of the coroner in the resident's home parish, according to a memo from state officials obtained by the Tribune.
"Please be advised that there should be no evacuees cremated without proper consent and authorization."
The memo, marked urgent and faxed to Louisiana's 64 coroner offices, cited an executive order signed by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco on Sept. 19 that gave the state's medical examiner control over disposal of the remains of those who died during and after the Aug. 29 storm.
"There have been some questionable practices," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, appointed to the newly created position of state medical examiner to oversee identification of the dead. "There is a northern parish that has a problem."
The Oct. 20 memo was the second on the topic sent to parish coroners. An earlier, less clear directive dated Oct. 15 that was signed by Cataldie warned, "There should be no evacuees cremated without proper consent and authorization."
Cataldie said Friday that he was aware of two apparently improper cremations, but refused to disclose the parish where they happened. He said he had asked lawyers with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to investigate whether the matter should be forwarded to authorities for criminal investigation.
"I wouldn't be cremating people you don't know," he said. "I've got coroners who don't know that they should check missing-person lists."
Cataldie said his office learned of the cremation of an evacuee from family members who knew their loved one had been evacuated but did not know exactly where the person had been taken. He said the person, who died several days after the hurricane hit, was from the parish that includes New Orleans and that the cremation took place in early October.
"The family was very distraught," Cataldie said. "They wanted to make sure it didn't happen to anyone else."
He said it was during this family's experience that his office became aware that at least one other person in the same parish had been cremated. "From the family we became aware that there was another cremation that may have occurred that should not have," he said.
In the latest accounting of the dead, Louisiana officials said that 1,062 bodies had been recovered statewide. Mississippi officials reported the death toll there at 228.
Louisiana law provides for coroners to handle the burial of bodies that are abandoned or if the individual is indigent.
Don Moreau, chief of operations for the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's office, said authorities were required to make a reasonable effort to find the next of kin for an identified body before determining that the body had been abandoned, although no time period is specified.
The coroner's office can handle body disposal if family members are located and they agree that the deceased person is indigent and that they do not want to handle the burial arrangements themselves.
"Sometimes, the family just doesn't want to have anything to do with the deceased," Moreau said. "And the cheapest way to do it is cremation. If I want to bury the body, I have to hire a backhoe, and that's more expensive than cremation."
But when a body is not identified, cremation is never appropriate, said Moreau, who served as a Louisiana state police officer for 25 years before joining the coroner's office.
"What if someone comes forward later?" Moreau asked. "You have to be able to exhume the body. You can't make an identification from ashes."