Shanna Riley October 29th, 2008
Though we are all aware of the disastrous effects hurricanes cause persons and property, not a great deal has been written about the effect of hurricanes on cemeteries. One might think that the dead, buried deep in the ground or snugly nestled in a mausoleum or crypt, would have naught to worry about from high winds and falling trees. In fact, cemeteries can – and do – suffer quite a bit of damage from the powerful storms.
It was 1992 when Hurricane Andrew decimated southern Florida and then swung on up to inflict its disastrous death knell in southwest Louisiana. I was fourteen years-old, yet I have many distinct memories of that time.
The most vivid of those memories actually occurred in the local cemetery of my hometown, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Cemetery in Maringouin, Louisiana.
After the storm had passed, and only gusty winds and drizzling rain remained, my mother took us children across town to our grandparents' house to see how they had fared. We decided to take a drive around town and survey the damage - which was fairly extensive. My grandfather wanted to ride with us, and - just before we decided to head back home - suggested we stop at the cemetery. A family member had recently died and he was curious to see if the headstone, which he had ordered, had been placed on the grave yet.
While at my grandparents', I had walked around the neighborhood snapping photos - and had gotten throughly soaked in the process. Since I was cold and wet, wrapped in a huge towel, I opted to stay in the car while they trekked over to the grave in question. As I was sitting there, looking out the window, I saw something that didn't seem quite right. The more I looked, the more I was sure of what I was seeing...a floating coffin.
I got out and called my family over. Sure enough, a grave had filled with water during the storm forcing the coffin to the surface. It sat there, bobbing ever so slightly in its grave, with the concrete slab resting firmly on top of it. The coffin was over ten years ago, I noted, reading the headstone of the grave's unfortunate occupant.
I will admit that it was eerie seeing a coffin that had been underground for over ten years unearthed and before my eyes. I remember the little white porcelain accents on the sides, with delicate purple blossoms painted on the smooth surface. I recall the coffin looking quite well for the wear, only slightly aged and rusted.
When we returned a few days later, a mound of dirt was piled atop the grave; she had been properly reburied, it would appear.
That moment has stayed stark in my mind all of these years. So it is with great interest that I research present-day instances where a hurricane caused damage in a cemetery, disrupting the peaceful slumber of the dead.
As it would happen, our recent brushes with nature's powerhouse (Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike) did indeed cause damage to local burial grounds; including broken graves, uprooted and floating coffins, and severe property damage to the cemeteries themselves.
High winds can often cause trees to uproot - if those tree roots are embedded in any nearby graves they, too, will be uprooted. These winds can also topple some headstones or smaller grave markers. Falling trees can crack or break gravestones, and gusting winds can completely cover them with dirt or debris.
Flooding, however, is the main cause of damage to cemeteries. When the water penetrates and seeps down into the ground it can fill up the cement vault and push the casket to the surface. As I can attest, the concrete slab atop a grave will do little to keep a floating coffin down.
If further flooding occurs, these coffins can be swept away to land somewhere else far away from the cemetery. This happened in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes during Hurricane Ike. The coffins had to be retrieved and placed back in their graves; something that can be so complicated as to necessitate DNA testing of the body to ensure it is restored to its proper place.
As you can see, hurricanes - with high winds and flooding - can be extremely damaging to a cemetery. The clean-up of debris alone is no easy feat after such a storm has passed. People rarely think about their deceased loved ones or local graveyards being harmed or even affected by hurricanes, but it is something to always keep in mind.
After a hurricane has passed and you, your family and property, are safe and taken care of, it would not be a bad idea to call your local cemetery's office and offer your services with cleanup. At the very least, travel there and tidy up the area around your loved ones' graves. Honoring our dead and respecting their final resting place is something we should all strive to do and helping to cleanup after a major storm is one small way you can accomplish this.