Joplin prepares for grim task of funerals, closed caskets

Reuters News
Posted: May 28, 2011 3:48 PM
Joplin prepares for grim task of funerals, closed caskets

By Elliott Blackburn

JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) - For some families, goodbye to victims of a powerful tornado that crushed buildings like twigs may only be a glimpse of a hand.

Traumatic injuries to the remains of the dead could force families to dispense with the tradition of a public viewing in this small Midwestern city. State officials said Saturday the temporary morgue in Joplin included partial remains.

The grim and daunting task facing the city's three funeral homes, and some in surrounding communities, was preparing for memorial services and for burial or cremation of at least 139 victims.

"All we can do is take our time," said David Dillon, a former owner of Thornhill-Dillon Mortuary.

The first funeral was in the nearby town of Galena, Kansas on Friday for 27-year-old electrician Adam Darnaby, remembered as an avid fisherman who liked fast cars.

The first services for victims in Joplin will begin on Monday, more than a week after the tragedy, according to Dennis Dreyer, the director of operations for Ozark Memorial Park, where many the dead will be buried.

The pace of the release of the dead has frustrated families anxious to recover loved ones and to move forward in their grief. Families of only 48 of the victims have been notified so far, because officials are following a painstaking process of identification to avoid mistakes.

Lindy Molina drove in from Irving, Texas to try and find her sister and nephew. She found the nine-year-old boy safe, but neighbors said her sister, Melissa Crossley, had died protecting him from the flying debris. Molina brought pictures and tattoo references to the temporary morgue in Joplin, but had no success.

"I personally do understand the process," Molina said. "But it is frustrating."

While the slow release of remains has been stressful for families, it gave the funeral homes, churches and cemeteries time to prepare.

Funeral homes here have worked to pull in resources from four states to handle services for victims. They expect the state of Missouri to release remains to families at a rate of 14 to 16 a day.

A small army of part-time and former workers and volunteers will help. Anything the memorial services needed -- from cars to caskets to embalming materials -- were offered by the Missouri state funeral home association and from colleagues in Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, funeral directors said.

Funeral homes were ready to offer private viewings, when possible, for families still wishing to say goodbye to badly damaged remains, said Tom Keckley, co-owner of Parker Mortuary & Crematory in Joplin. Medical bandages and terry cloth could cover severe injuries, he said.

"It might be looking at a hand that's exposed while other parts are covered, but anything that will let that person know that that is their loved one," Keckley said. "So that they accept it and can begin to heal."

Even for funeral home staff accustomed to consoling grieving families, the Joplin tragedy has been personal. Dillon recognized names on the list of missing.

"You just hurt with them," Dillon said. "You still have to be strong for them."

The Ozark cemetery will be working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, said Dreyer.

His staff was still numb from the tragedy, and focused on day-to-day tasks. They held daily meetings to prepare for the overwhelming job ahead, he said.

Preparing a grave site and holding a service could take four hours, he said. Many employees had pledged to donate their time for the victims' funerals.

"You'll find Joplin is a close community," Dreyer said. "From start to finish."

(Editing by Greg McCune)