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Ensuring Last Rites Not Swept Away Too

A family of morticians tries to preserve some of New Orleans' dignity and spirit for Katrina's victims and those left behind to mourn.

September 17, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — Everyone at the Rhodes Funeral Home felt a little better when they heard that Emile Minor had been laid to rest.

Minor, a 92-year-old retired postal carrier, was the first of the flood dead that the family funeral business had helped to bury.

He died alone, strapped into a wheelchair in a van, during a frantic evacuation from a hospital in New Orleans. His body turned up in a coroner's office 220 miles away, then was shipped to the Rhodes Funeral Home in Baton Rouge, where it was prepared for burial, then sent by air to San Antonio, Texas, to which some of his family had evacuated.

Finally, almost two weeks after Minor died, he was buried in San Antonio. The Rhodes siblings compared notes on his funeral: how, behind his casket, a trombonist, a trumpeter and a tuba player blew out a nice, slow dirge. How -- at the moment that is known as "cutting loose the body" -- the musicians broke into a brassy rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

And how, hearing the music, Minor's children and grandchildren began to dance in the Texas graveyard. It was an unmistakably New Orleanean funeral, open-casketed, flamboyant and stylish, its grief shot through with joy.

This came as satisfying news for the five siblings who run one of New Orleans' oldest African American funeral homes.

With Hurricane Katrina's death toll rising, the Rhodes family prepared to bury the dead. Instead they face delays, as bodies are tagged, assigned a number, decontaminated with a chemical spray, and stored in drawers in a government complex, awaiting identification. Only then can the morticians sit down with bereaved family and plan a ceremony.

"We try and give them some sense of self," said Sandra Rhodes Duncan, 60. She was staring down at a pill caddy full of medications, trying to figure out which day of the week it was. Her face showed exhaustion. "They want their self back. They done lost their self."

Customers walking into the Baton Rouge headquarters of the Rhodes Funeral Home can expect to be greeted as "baby girl," or "lover," or "boo." The five children of Duplain Rhodes Jr. and his fourth wife, Doris, represent the third generation in a business that has served African Americans in New Orleans since 1884.

Twenty-four members of the Rhodes family have been staying in the white-columned funeral home, amid gleaming caskets and death certificates recovered from their flooded locations in downtown New Orleans. There is a strict rule that at 9 a.m., all bedding must be pulled off the floor and stashed away, so that customers do not have to step over air mattresses.

There is no such thing as business as usual. "First calls" come in as they always did, but when a funeral director gets on the phone, a wild variety of stories spill out.

"The first statement they could say is 'I know where the body is.' They could say, 'I know where the body is, but I have to identify it.' Or they could say, 'She was last seen on the interstate but she had a bad heart problem, and I'm sure she's dead,'" said Lisa Fuller, a Rhodes grandchild.

So far, the Rhodes Funeral Home has arranged 24 storm victims' funerals; four have been buried. Among them is a young man who cut himself on a piece of tin while trying to board a boat and bled to death in his apartment complex. Another victim is an elderly man who died alone on the expressway, near the Esplanade exit, after his neighbor left him there. On a list they call "Unknown," the Rhodeses have listed five people whose families called in to begin planning a funeral without knowing for certain whether their loved one was dead.

Rules bend in this environment. The other day, Stephanie R. Navarre -- the second-eldest sister, the one who likes to say she is "too mean to cry" -- told a distraught customer she would store a body for six months, a gesture that left her sister Sandra incredulous.

Navarre, 54, has appealed to Louis Cataldie, the state's medical incident commander for the disaster, to speed up the processing of identified bodies so that they can be buried in open-casket ceremonies.

"If I can tell you who Mary Smith is, and where you're going to find Mary Smith, you gotta go find her, keep her tag on her, get her decontaminated, and turn her over to the local coroner's office, so I can give her honor, dignity and respect," she said. "They don't know anything about that. They don't understand you don't have the same kind of funeral in Maine as you do in New Orleans."

The Rhodeses are proud people, and they feel deeply wounded by what happened in New Orleans.

Among the people trapped in the city were Sandra's son and her ex-husband, Otis, 61, a diabetic who has used a wheelchair since his leg was amputated.

Otis had gone without dialysis for five days when their sons, Otis Jr., 35, and Orrin, 34, decided to push his wheelchair down the highway in search of help. They ended up walking miles.

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