JOPLIN, Mo. —
Nearly three weeks since a tornado cut a devastating scar through Joplin, Parker Mortuary’s Tom Keckley can finally take stock — and a bit of a breather — from a whirlwind stretch in his line of work unlike anything he’s seen.
The most powerful of twisters that laid waste May 22 to a six-mile swath of the city left a body count that would soar to some 150 victims, posing what turned out to be an inescapable, numbing challenge to Joplin’s three funeral homes: How possibly can they handle that volume of carnage without sacrificing compassion for the lost souls’ survivors?
What has transpired in the interim may be one of Joplin’s bigger stories of grace and grit. Parker Mortuary and Mason-Woodard Mortuary, relying on everything from anticipatory planning to volunteerism from embalmers from far-flung areas, scrambled to arrange more than 70 of the tornado-related funerals or memorial services in the tightest of time frames, all of them mingled in with their usual business.
“I would venture to say that no mortuary here had seen this amount of people,” said Bruce Woodard of Mason-Woodard, which has handled 40 tornado victims while still tending to families of nine other people who died of other causes.
The tornado “more than doubled our regular service load,” Woodard said.
‘IN A FOG’
“With help and God’s grace, we’ve been able to stay in front of it,” Keckley added regarding the 31 tornado-associated funerals Parker has arranged — nearly matching in a couple of weeks the 40 to 45 calls for arrangements his parlor gets any given month.
“I’m in a fog,” he said.
It’s been that way for Keckley since the moments after the tornado tore through Joplin, taking out the city’s biggest hospital, a Wal-Mart and Home Depot along with thousands of homes and businesses.
Parker Mortuary and the more than 80 people attending two wakes there were spared, huddling in an inside corridor from the storm that knocked out the power to the funeral parlor and its phone lines. Workers managed to rig two of the lines, partly using a battery backup.
Early whispers of perhaps hundreds of dead had Keckley and others at Parker instantly brainstorming, hashing out contingency plans, setting up a temporary in-house morgue “and trying to anticipate a large volume of calls” that eventually started streaming in to volunteers who Parker enlisted to field them.
“They rushed to our rescue to be of assistance,” at times from other states, Keckley said.
The enormity of the tragedy actually helped Parker and Mason-Woodard. Though a handful of the bodies were taken to the funeral homes by private vehicles in the tornado's immediate aftermath, it was days before the state slowly began releasing the rest of the twister’s dead to the undertakers from a makeshift morgue in refrigerated trucks.
“That time lag allowed us to get geared up,” Keckley said. “We just turned our focus to putting processes in place so we could handle the largest amount of volume in the most efficient way and remain compassionate.”