Keeping The Dead In Their Place Unidentified coffins are a big problem in Louisiana, especially when they end up floating down flooded city streets.

Keeping The Dead In Their Place

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When a storm dumped 2 feet of rain on Louisiana, it was a nightmare for those living in the storm's path. It also disturbed the dead.


Last month, catastrophic rains left entire towns in Louisiana underwater, including their cemeteries. In that state, a centuries-old tradition means most coffins are not buried the usual 6 feet down but in shallow vaults up at surface level.

ARBIE GOINGS: When we have hurricanes which brings flooding and high winds, buoyancy will cause these vaults to pop up and then float away from their graves.

MONTAGNE: Arbie Goings is a member of the state's Disaster Mortuary Recovery Team, from Denham Springs, one of the towns hardest hit.

GOINGS: We actually have had, in a few cases, caskets in vaults escape the cemetery grounds. And then they end up in wooded areas and neighborhoods and ponds. And - you name it, and they've ended up there.

GREENE: And you might call Goings a grave wrangler. When the waters recede, he tracks down the coffins and tries to figure out which goes where. And that is not always easy.

GOINGS: There's no labels on these caskets. There's no names for the most part. Now, there are a few exceptions, so we don't even know who is in the casket. And so before we can reinter somebody, we have to identify who that individual is.

MONTAGNE: After Hurricane Katrina, nearly a thousand dead escaped their earthly moorings, so Louisiana required that all caskets be labeled. That's been a mixed success.

GREENE: Because labels get waterlogged. So Arbie Goings is working with the state on ideas that would solve this problem, like attaching barcodes and homing devices to coffins. His team has even developed a tracking app. But he says the best solution is the simplest.

GOINGS: The truth is we can bury below the ground, and that probably would be the ultimate fix. But I do know that you will be going against, you know, many, many hundreds and hundreds of years of culture and custom and tradition. And so until then, Goings says he will do his best to make sure every coffin makes it back to the proper gravesite.


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