At a time when mass shootings dominate the conversation about public safety in the U.S., Baton Rouge funeral directors are preparing for an event with mass fatalities.
“When you walk in a room and kill 10 or 15 people, I mean, how do we prepare for that?” said Hall Davis, owner of Hall Davis & Son Funeral Service in Baton Rouge.
His office performs some 350 funerals a year, about 25 of which are for homicide victims, he said.
Davis is one of several Baton Rouge funeral directors who have trained in planning for mass fatalities. For professionals in the funeral business, the work involves coordinating with authorities to retrieve and identify bodies, setting up portable morgues and speaking with victims’ families. It could also include a critical service to slow decomposition that coroners and doctors don’t provide — embalming.
Davis said embalming, which entails pumping chemicals through a corpse to interrupt decay, could be useful in a major catastrophe in case there aren’t enough refrigeration units available to house bodies.
East Baton Rouge Parish coroner William “Beau” Clark agreed funeral directors play a role in mass fatality plans but said it’s unlikely his office, which can house 50 bodies, would run out of refrigerated space to store additional bodies. As the person who would coordinate the response in the event of mass fatalities, Clark has contracts with out-of-state companies to bring in refrigerated trucks that can hold 150 bodies each, he said.
Still, events like Hurricane Katrina and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris are an indication that crises can intensify in unpredictable ways. Even in an incident with a dozen victims, funeral directors can become overwhelmed by their duties, including signing death certificates, which can create a backlog for other workers.
“When something big happens, it’s not day-to-day death care,” said Arbie Goings, a funeral director at Rabenhorst Funeral Homes in Baton Rouge. After the 9/11 attacks, Goings spent two months in New York helping local authorities write death certificates as part of his work with the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT.
Goings also provides trainings in fatality plans for funeral directors, especially in rural areas where coroners might have few resources.
“Where I think the funeral services would have the most impact is smaller jurisdictions that don’t have cold storage,” Clark said.
Emergency responders might handle certain aspects of a death before handing the work to someone else, but funeral directors typically take care of everything that comes after a body has been officially processed, including burials, streams of grieving family members and the drama of coordinating an emotional — and sometimes expensive — event, Goings said.
“Funeral directors are in a good position to help with this because it’s in our wheelhouse,” he said. “Local jurisdictions are beginning to appreciate, wow, (these incidents) could happen here.”
Though some funeral directors are training in mass fatality response skills, some worry the effort lacks organization.
“If anybody tells you that there is a plan, I don’t think they would be telling you the truth,” said Douglas Caulfield, funeral director at Scott Bluff Morticians in Baton Rouge.
Caulfield has attended statewide meetings on mass fatality preparation but said he’s still unclear on what his role would be as a funeral director.
Local coroners, rather than the state, are the points of contact for mass fatalities, said Henry Yennie, a program monitor at the state Department of Health and Hospitals. DHH stands by and is ready to assist coroners, he said.
Funeral directors are mentioned briefly in the state’s most recent Mass Fatality Framework from 2010, written in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. A new plan is in the works. Funeral directors are referred to mainly as providers of overflow space for bodies or embalming in the event high-level biological weapons are used.
Yennie said, “Funeral directors are key,” but added they should be seen as volunteers when it comes to responding to mass fatalities.
He acknowledged that planning for mass fatalities is decentralized with authority spread among coroners in the state’s 64 parishes. There’s not a set blueprint, he said, for an incident that spans parishes. Louisiana, unlike other states, does not have a state medical examiner, he pointed out.
Caulfield said funeral directors should be taken more seriously in mass fatality preparations.
“When you talk about death, nobody wants to talk about it. It should be discussed,” he said.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.