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Where the Dead Have No Home

A ruined house sits abandoned in New Orleans.

Nearly five years on from the end of the Second American Civil War, and the United States is still struggling to bury its dead. There is such a backup in the proper identification and disposal of corpses created during the civil war, that several cities have resorted to storing dead bodies in refrigerated trailers due to overflowing morgues.

In 2016,the city of New Orleans struggled to bury its dead while preserving unidentified remains for future identification by law enforcement or family. One infamous case, dating back to March of 2016, saw New Orleans police discovering two trailers packed with human remains that had lost refrigeration, while dozens more bodies stacked up in the city's morgue. In that case there were 674 corpses in all, placed in remote trailers away from the city's overflowing morgue and forgotten. Some of the bodies have been in storage for more than three years.

Those trailers are now back at the Orleans Parish morgue, and Dana Hirshcell says the whole place reeks of death. "The smell penetrates you, it's inescapable," Hirschell says, standing in front of the coroner's office. Hirschell and her wife are from Arkansas and saw news of the trailers on TV. Their daughter, Justice, has been missing since 2012. She was 16 at the time and on the run from the Department of Evolved Affairs. They think that maybe her body is in one of the trailers.

"We've seen so many bodies during the years searching for her," says Dana.

The estimate of death during the Second American Civil War ranges in the conservative hundreds of thousands, to millions by some models. The true number of casualties may not be known for decades, until the Dead Zones are reclaimed and order brought back to the country's disparate and destroyed cities. In the interim, functioning morgues like those in New Orleans serve as mass resting places for counties of dead, where new bodies are found every day.

Congo Square, just a block from the New Orleans Coroner's office is plastered with flyers and signs of missing, many of which have been hung since as far back as early 2010. The plaza is often referred to as the "Circle of the Lost" by locals, and hundreds visit this site daily.

James Seneca also waits outside the New Orleans Coroner's office. His 34-year-old son went missing in October of 2014. He says authorities took a DNA sample back then, but according to the news reports he's heard, they haven't done anything to identify the hundreds of bodies inside.

"I don't know how I'm going to find my son," he sobs. "I just want to rest."

The morgue's new director, Paul Gedney, says he has a lot of work ahead of him. "The people of New Orleans deserve better than what they've had over the last few years," he says in an interview in his office. The overwhelming stench of the trailers permeates the walls. "But we barely have electricity in most of the city, and what we do have is only on for a few hours at a time. Most everything is just to keep the bodies from deteriorating any further. We've sent as many as we can up to Kansas City. There's just nowhere to store them all."

Five officials, including the past director, have been fired since the trailers were discovered and the scandal erupted. But officials in New Orleans face another problem -- the seemingly endless arrival of new bodies.

In a riverside neighborhood on the outskirts of Vacheire police officers climbed into their truck and drove out on a recent night. They just finished recovering four bodies from a clandestine shallow grave in an empty field behind the rows of houses. A mass grave from an execution. Local coroners estimate the bodies have been decomposing in the grave since 2011.

Newly constructed crypts already insufficient for the volume of deceased.

Meanwhile, workers at one of the city's largest cemeteries are quickly building rows of concrete crypts for the hundreds of bodies still at the morgue. Dozens of bodies have already been placed here, including those from families that can't afford a funeral, like Angelica Parmenter. Her son was identified from partial remains recovered in a mass grave just outside of Sorrento in 2017.

"I wanted to have the funeral here at my home," she says in the living room of her small residence, where a picture of her son and grandson are surrounded by white roses and votive candles. But the 68-year-old mother and grandmother says the authorities, who only paid for the crypt interment, wouldn't allow it.

It took Parmenter months to get her son's body out of the morgue. She's still waiting for authorities to allow her to give her grandson a proper goodbye. She says officials still haven't figured out which body is her grandson's among the hundreds still at the morgue, if it has even been recovered at all.

New Orleans is but one major American city struggling like this, and it remains to be seen how or when the crisis will end.


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