The last unburied dead of Hurricane Katrina were supposed to get the traditional jazz funeral that is such a vibrant part of New Orleans’s culture and history. Plans had called for three local brass bands to make their way up Canal Street to the half-built Katrina Memorial on August 29, the third anniversary of the levee break. As is traditional, the bands would precede the mourners, playing somber spirituals on the way to the cemetery—before cutting loose with rollicking jazz tunes, once the bodies were secured in their above-ground graves, in anticipation of the hoped-for resurrection of the dead. But another hurricane intervened. With Gustav churning its way through the Gulf and evacuations imminent, aides to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin—recalling charges that the city government hadn’t taken Katrina seriously—canceled the festivities, lest CNN viewers get the impression that the Nagin administration was partying in the face of the new storm.
But that didn’t satisfy Dr. Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, whose office had been building the memorial. In Katrina’s aftermath, Minyard had to identify more than 1,000 bodies in his makeshift FEMA lab near Baton Rouge. It was a month before he had a working phone and six weeks before he could hire medical stenographers to transcribe autopsies. Eventually, his office identified more than 950 Orleans Parish victims, but 81 remained unknown and unburied three years after the storm. Minyard, a lifetime New Orleanian who has served as parish coroner for more than 30 years, came to think of the unknowns as his people. “I get pretty emotional when I think about them,” he said. “I felt like we were the only ones who could speak for them.”
Thus it was that in the topsy-turvy atmosphere of the city’s rebuilding—where lines of authority crisscross and nobody ever quite knows whether the state, the city, or the feds are in charge—it fell to the parish coroner’s office to create a memorial for the unidentified victims. Minyard could have buried them in the marshy soil of Holt Cemetery, where the city inters the indigent. But the caskets “would have just sunk down and we could never get them back up if we needed to,” said Minyard, who decided that the city needed a memorial that would give the unidentified dead a final resting place and honor all the storm’s victims as well. Eventually, $1 million was earmarked from federal relief funds, additional private money was raised, and Minyard’s office worked with the state government to take possession of an acre in the old Charity Hospital Cemetery, near where Canal Street ends in Mid-City.
With the jazz funeral canceled, a procession of hearses drove up Canal Street on August 29, pulling up to the unfinished memorial, where workers had laid sod only the night before. It was sparser toward the plot’s edges, revealing the gray soil underneath. Black granite mausoleums for the 81 dead surrounded a concrete walk in the shape of a swirling hurricane, with a spot in the center that will eventually hold a statue. Most of the bodies had been interred the day before, but seven had been held back for the 29th. Pallbearers from the city’s funeral homes and an honor guard from the police and fire departments escorted the donated silver caskets to the memorial. The pallbearers slid the caskets into the mausoleums, and city workers caulked and affixed the granite fronts, sealing away the dead.
Then, as often happens in New Orleans, things veered from the sublime toward the ridiculous. Volunteers handed out Katrina anniversary bells and T-shirts that rather prominently featured Mayor Nagin’s name. The man himself arrived, his bald head shining under a beating sun (the company hired to provide canopies had evacuated the day before), accompanied by the recently indicted congressman William Jefferson and Lieutetant General Russel Honoré—the “John Wayne dude,” as Nagin famously called him, who ran the Katrina cleanup. As a young woman belted out “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the dignitaries ascended a stage with a backdrop featuring scenes of rebuilding and recovery—and Nagin’s smiling face. A fawning city functionary introduced the mayor as “our leader . . . who led us with courage and determination through the storm and the recovery.”
Nagin made a few perfunctory remarks. Then Honoré rose and, making the first reference of the day to Gustav, shouted in his resonant baritone that Katrina showed that “time waits for no man.” Warming up, Honoré blasted the slowness of the rebuilding process that he ran for two and half years before his January retirement. “We cannot wait another three years to get the schools back, to get the hospitals back,” he growled. “We can do better! We have done better! We must do better!” Nagin’s face assumed a solemn look as he stared fixedly at a point above and slightly to the right of Honoré’s shoulder.
It was Minyard who brought the ceremony back to its purpose of honoring the recently buried dead. The coroner, an accomplished amateur musician whose name is “in the book” at the French Quarter’s Preservation Hall—assuring him a jazz funeral when his time comes—had told reporters that he planned to sneak his trumpet onstage despite the cancellation. Now he took the instrument out of its leather case and reminded the sweltering crowd that “you can’t buy a jazz funeral; you have to be a person of quality.” And he played a tune that his mother had taught him when he was 12 years old. “I had to get that out of this old trumpet,” he said with a sad smile. “It’s been in there for three years while I’ve been waiting to play for these folks.” Then the crowd broke up, as the city that had only now finished burying the dead turned to evacuating the living.