Uncertainty Marks Survivors' Search for Loved Ones

Kathleen Rhodes-Astorga, funeral director and co-owner of the Rhodes Funeral Home in New Orleans, explains how she and her family are helping people whose loved ones are still missing after Hurricane Katrina. Some face troubles getting remains released from the morgue, while others aren't sure their loved ones have been found.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block, and this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

NORRIS: New Orleans and the surrounding area has long been famous for its funerals: the jazz processions and the bobbing umbrellas, ceremonies where grief is transformed into a glorious celebration. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of Louisiana families must first find loved ones before they can even think about burials. Of the more than 1,000 people killed by Katrina, authorities report that only a small number have been returned to families. Since the last century, the Rhodes Funeral Home chain has been providing comfort and crucial information to the bereaved in New Orleans. But the confusion and the chaos following Katrina has made that very difficult. Kathleen Rhodes-Astorga is the federal director and one of the owners of the Rhodes Funeral Home chain, and she joins us now.

As we noted, of the more than 1,000 people who've been killed by Katrina, a thousand people collected so far, authorities say that only a small number have been returned to their families, so what do families do in the meantime and how do you help them?

Ms. KATHLEEN RHODES-ASTORGA (Rhodes Funeral Home): Oh, they pray. A lot of families are praying and hoping, and we talk about this identification process, that it's important that they call, you know, FEMA and assistance lines, give them all the information that they have in terms of identifying marks--anything that's going to help them: what the person was wearing, where the person was left--things of that nature to help them do their job. But when you have lost someone, the first thing you want to start thinking about is not just the body--where the body is--but about that person's life, about that goodbye, how I want to say goodbye, what kind of funeral I want to have, how I want my loved one remembered--how I want Mom remembered, or Dad or my sister or my brother--whoever's missing. The person's missing until they're found.

NORRIS: You know, right now in a time like this, the funeral home normally is a source of comfort, and you can answer all the questions that a family might have, but this must be very difficult for you as well, because it--imagine if the families can't get through when they try to make these calls, the lines are often overwhelmed. How hard has it been for you to try to fulfill that role that you normally serve?

Ms. RHODES-ASTORGA: It's challenging, but we've been serving the New Orleans community since 1884, and just because Katrina came through town doesn't mean we're going to stop servicing people. You know, we've had personal loss. We've lost our homes. But the bottom-bottom net-net end result is I chose to be in this business. I chose to follow in my grandfather's footsteps, and he left a legacy that said, you know, what we do is we care for families. We do it in a dignified manner. We do it in an honorable manner. And we don't run when things are tough.

NORRIS: Help us understand that journey, really that odyssey for a family that's trying to find a loved one that's still missing three weeks after the hurricane hit.

Ms. RHODES-ASTORGA: If you've had a loss at this time, you are confused; you are wondering what's happening to that person's remains; you're concerned about not being able to get good, good, good information quickly. Because the first thing you want in normal circumstances when somebody passes--you want as much information as you can because you want to be able to have some element of control. None of us can control life or death. So one of the challenges for us is just to understand and accept that we happen to be with our families that walk this walk with them. And it's not going to be like it was before Katrina because Katrina is something that happened that's out of our hands.

NORRIS: In a city where funerals were really a celebration...

Ms. RHODES-ASTORGA: Oh, yes.

NORRIS: ...of life, it this all the more difficult? New Orleans really was known for sending people out in a special way. Is it all the more difficult that people can't plan those ceremonies right now?

Ms. RHODES-ASTORGA: Some families are ready. When I say ready, they're open to the notion of perhaps a family prayer where--and I don't want to use the word closure 'cause there is no closure to death--it just doesn't close, OK? The problem, the challenge is you may have to plan it a month down the line. My first suggestion to people is to start with family. You know, you can bring your family together, and sometimes it's just a brother and a sister 'cause remember, aunts, uncles, cousins are spread across the country. So I just start with whomever you're with to start saying goodbye, to start thinking about that person's life, to start to getting pictures together, to start writing your obituary, to start doing tasks for this formal funeral. But you can plan a funeral.

NORRIS: Kathleen Rhodes-Astorga is the funeral director and one of the owners of the Rhodes Funeral Homes in New Orleans.

Thanks so much for talking to us.

Ms. RHODES-ASTORGA: Oh, you're very welcome.

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