Cemeteries and Natural Disasters

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Last month, my brother Jordan shared this New York Times article about flooding and cemeteries with me, and it has been on my mind since. It follows Artie Goings, a "cemetery recovery expert" who specializes in disaster mortuary work. He was called into an area of Louisiana that had been hit hard by flooding recently, and the situation was dire: caskets were unearthed and littered the grounds, graves were filled with water, and there was a lot of uncertainty about the remains inside. It's a really interesting piece, and ultimately Goings and his team started to work on using bar codes affixed to caskets to help keep track of the interred. It's a unique issue, but not necessarily uncommon, that called for some outside-the-box thinking.

The CCC was in Orlando this year, only a few days after Hurricane Matthew landed in the U.S. Orlando mostly lucked out and didn't see too much damage, but things were quiet around the city - the hurricane even closed down Disney World for only the fourth time since its opening almost 50 years ago. Everyone was being cautious, as it's movement through the Western Atlantic caused widespread devastation and loss of life, particularly in Haiti. Jordan was on the coast of South Carolina to attend the ICCFA Fall Management and they actually canceled the entire show on the day before it was scheduled to begin because the area was in an evacuation zone. It was a pleasant and overcast week, with the calm after the storm lingering around the show.

At the CCC, I spent some time talking with the folks at PlotBox, a cemetery mapping company that digitizes and streamlines cemetery operations from record keeping and accounting to mapping and document management. We discussed just some of the immense challenges all cemetery professionals face in this area in general - not to mention what can happen when nature intervenes. In the best case, it's a proactive, forward-thinking organization initiating the process to centralize all of their information and records into an integrated system. In the worst case - and we were thinking about this because of the Hurricane and their experiences being called in as an emergency - it's in response to some kind of catastrophe; a fire in the office, a flood, even a misplaced ledger. They just shared some horror stories where it just seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did, and all anyone could do was try to pick up the pieces.

All of this resonated with me because of the work I had done at the end of September. I just gotten back from Flint, Michigan, where we led a large-scale transfer of entombments from one mausoleum to another. Due to issues with construction and drainage, one building was basically sinking into the ground, so we were on-site to work the removal and re-entombment of over 50 caskets. What preceded this trip, though, was a long process of tracking down families, securing permissions, notifying funeral directors, and, most importantly, making sure the right people were going to the right places. Even in this situation, where the director was really on top of things and we had as much time as we needed to get things right and develop a plan, everyone involved had to be sharp and focused throughout the week. On the way home from Orlando, I couldn't help but wonder what it might have been like had some kind of event accelerated the deterioration of the building, and we had to accelerate our timeline.

Extreme weather events have been increasing in frequency, and it is likely that they will continue to become more of the norm and less of an exception. But I think I'd like to stress that it's not just the weather, it could be any kind of unexpected catalyst - from the mismanagement of a previous owner to unforeseen side effects from some decision made way before your time - that throws a wrench in your day-to-day. The least you can is have some kind of comprehensive authorization in your Policies and Procedures that gives you the flexibility to solve problems without being hamstrung or slowed down, so that maintenance procedures (whether they are routine or extra-ordinary) can be done efficiently and safely. We have a white-paper detailing some of our recommendations - please don't hesitate to reach out to me directly (marc@ensureaseal.com) and I will be happy to share it with you.