Going the Distance with Katrina’s Dead

Poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch has been thinking a lot these past couple of weeks about New Orleans and how the dead are precious to those who survive them.

“Wherever our spirits go or don’t, ours is a species that has learned to deal with death — the idea of the thing — by dealing with the dead — the thing itself — in all the flesh and frailty of our human condition,” he says.

In response to the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, Lynch wrote a new poem, “Local Heroes,” first published on NPR.org:

‘Local Heroes’

Some days the worst that can happen happens.
The sky falls or weather overwhelms or
The world as we have come to know it turns
Towards the eventual apocalypse
Long prefigured in all the holy books —
The end times of floods and conflagrations
That bring us to the edge of our oblivions.
Still, maybe this is not the end at all,
Nor even the beginning of the end.
Rather, one more in a long list of sorrows,
To be added to the ones thus far endured,
Through what we have come to call our history:
Another in that bitter litany
That we will, if we survive it, have survived.
Lord, send us in our peril, local heroes,
Someone to listen, someone to watch,
Some one to search and wait and keep the careful count
Of the dead and missing, the dead and gone
But not forgotten. Sometimes all that can be done
Is to salvage one sadness from the mass of sadnesses,
To bear one body home, to lay the dead out
Among their people, organize the flowers
And casseroles, write the obits, meet the mourners at the door,
Drive the dark procession down through town
Toll the bell, dig the hole, tend the pyre.
It’s what we do. The daylong news is dire —
Full of true believers and politicos
Old talk of race and blame and photo ops.
But here brave men and women pick the pieces up.
They serve the living tending to the dead.
They bring them home, the missing and adrift,
They give them back to let them go again.
Like politics, all funerals are local.Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Lynch

NPR:  All Things Considered
September 14, 2005