The Invisible Body Battalion
A private firm's undertaker unit is witnessing the
human cost of Katrina. But they're not talking.
By Dirk Johnson
Updated: 11:12 a.m. ET Sept. 19, 2005
Sept. 19, 2005 - Meet the body handlers. That’s
impossible in the field—the private unit deployed to
find, package, and transport the dead in the
Mississippi Delta shuns the press. Complete privacy is
part of a battle plan aimed at treating each corpse
with dignity. Or, at least, so says the company,
leaving aside the issue of how the reality might
affect public opinion. Their mantra—this was
somebody's mother or father, sister or brother, or
even a child. Therefore the workers even must be sworn
to secrecy about what they’re finding.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, about 120 of
these grim reapers are now working to recover bodies,
a job that becomes more dreadful as the waters recede.
Kenyon International Emergency Services Inc.
specializes in tending to the ruins of human
catastrophe—finding and identifying bodies, embalming,
counseling families—the work of an undertaker,
squared. Founded in 1929 in England after a British
Imperial airline crashed, the company recently has
worked on the Asian tsunami and the August Helios
plane crash. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco of
Louisiana hired Kenyon last Tuesday for $4.3 million
to recover the bodies of Louisiana flood victims. "It
takes a special breed to do this kind of work," says
Jay Kirsch, a Kenyon spokesman. "These are people who
are comfortable handling bodies."
They see bodies in rigor mortis, bodies that are
decomposing, remains that have been gnawed by rats.
But they sign a pledge swearing that they will never
talk about it. "They can talk about how terrible New
Orleans looked, or how dreadfully hot they were, or
how exhausted, but they can never talk about the
condition of the bodies," says Kirsch. "These bodies
are people. They belong to families who want them
back. What if the body was your mother? Would you want
somebody to talk about what they had seen?"
Now based in a former Pepsi warehouse in north
Houston , Kenyon also has offices in England , Australia
and Singapore . It is a subsidiary of publicly traded
Service Corporation International, which describes
itself as North America 's largest provider of funeral
and cremation services. Most of its employees work on
contract, usually for three weeks at a time, and they
are drawn largely from what Hirsch described as "the
death industry,"—funeral homes, morgues, hospital
workers. Kenyon does not disclose what it pays its
body handlers. But Hirsch said simply, "The pay is
At the Kenyon office in Houston , just off Interstate
45, the company maintains a vast storage facility—much
larger than a football field—to house disaster
victims’ belongings. Workers clean, bar-code,
photograph and store everything. Kenyon then compiles
a catalogue of the belongings for families, who have
up to 18 months to claim items. Family members often
worry less about recovering the expensive items like
Rolex watches than in finding the simple, but
priceless, keepsake that said something about a
person—a pocketknife, say, or a medallion. If these
items go unclaimed, Kenyon buries them.
Kenyon has some 200 clients, ranging from airlines to
state and foreign governments. In all, Kenyon
contracts with about 1,000 body handlers. To recover
bodies after Katrina, these workers are flown in to
Houston from all over the country. Authorities tell
the teams of 12 to 15—about three quarters are
men—where to look for bodies. They put the dead in
body bags and move the bags to a morgue in St. Gabriel
or to the Convention Center, a holding site. The
company has deployed using about 60 white vans and 11
The workers wear Tyvek jumpsuits, wader hip boots,
white hospital masks and sometimes respirators. The
odor of death can be nauseating. The workers usually
put in 12 to 14 hours, and then sleep on cots in a
tent. At the end of each day, the suits go in a
hazardous waste dump. Vans and boots are
After any disaster, Kenyon gets an uptick in job
applicants. "It's mostly word of mouth," says Hirsch.
"I don't think I've ever seen a help-wanted ad for a
body handler." Concern for families drives these
workers, he said. With a body, they at least can
properly grieve a loved one. That thought will sustain
them over what could be a long and deeply troubling
follow-up to Katrina.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005 MSNBC.com