On April 16, 2020, the New York Times published an op-ed about the challenges facing overwhelmed funeral directors around the country during the COVID-19 epidemic. In “hot spots” like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans, funeral home staff are working long hours to pick up and prepare the remains of those killed by the disease; they also process the required paperwork and expend emotional energy in comforting grieving families through the computer screen – all while possibly putting their own health on the line.
Yet, despite their frustrations, death care workers continue to do critical, and often underappreciated, frontline work. The current pandemic is merely the latest reminder of the special role that death care workers play in our greatest hours of need. Whether during epidemics or disasters, funeral homes and their staff help grieving communities reclaim a sense of dignity for the dead and assert what elements of the good death they can. The services they offer help communities recover and mourn their dead, thereby reasserting communal values and restoring a sense of order amidst chaos.
Such was the case after the Texas City industrial explosion. Texas City is an industrial hub on the Gulf of Mexico. During World War II, its waterfront had expanded to include several chemical and petroleum refineries; after the war, its port remained active. On April 16, 1947, the cargo ship the S.S. Grandcamp was docked when one of its holds, loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, caught fire. Despite efforts to smother the flames and tug the ship into the bay, the vessel exploded violently around 9 A.M.1 The blast sent shrapnel in all directions, created a tidal wave over the docks, ripped open metal storage tanks, and flipped over railcars. In downtown Texas City, a few miles away, windows blew out and walls crumbled. The extent of the damage led some reporters to compare the ruins of Texas City to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The magnitude of the disaster created major problems for the recovery and identification of the dead. The bodies of those killed at or near the docks were fragmented and, in some cases, covered with petroleum or burned. Some bodies were blown into the bay or suffered a condition known as tissue gas, when bacteria causes human remains to bloat dramatically.2
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, some residents – not knowing where else to turn – carried bodies to the local Emken-Linton Funeral Home, as well as to other funeral homes in neighboring Galveston.3 Within a day, however, Texas City mayor J. Curtis Trahan convened a Dead Body Commission (DBC) to oversee the handling of remains. The chairman of the commission was R. Victor Landig, president and founder of Landig College of Mortuary Science in Houston and a respected educator. Under his guidance, the DBC created a protocol for remains: all bodies were to be brought to a designated morgue site; no bodies could leave the city without a death certificate; and bodies had to be transported in approved vehicles.
The DBC, and the authority it granted Landig, reflects how urgent the crisis of mass death was at Texas City and how culturally important deathcare workers were in this period. According to historian Gary Laderman, the funeral home became an American institution in the first half of the twentieth century, and the handling of the dead became a means of expressing American values.4 Following the mass death of World War II, Americans clung to the notion of permanence and protection, and funeral directors could offer the illusion of both, even in death, by embalming the body and sealing it in air-tight, waterproof caskets.5
The DBC oversaw the work of dozens of funeral directors, mortuary workers, and student volunteers at Texas City. Although the disaster prevented these workers from offering protection to the dead, they were able to prepare the bodies for identification. Only with identification could families hope to enact some of the rituals of burial and mourning that would help them grieve. Although some forensic forms of identification, such as fingerprinting, were available in this period, many of the Texas City victims were laid out in the high school gymnasium for visual identification. To prepare the bodies, three funeral directors – Fred Linton of Texas City, William Tipton of Galveston, and Naul Sandall, Jr., of Houston – selected McGar’s Garage as an embalming room.6 As bodies were delivered to the garage, a team of funeral directors, embalmers, and mortuary school students – 150 in total – worked to clean and prepare the bodies for viewing.7 Upon the arrival of new bodies, attendants performed preliminary checks for identifying items, such as jewelry or work badges. Then the embalmers embalmed the remains, after which volunteers wheeled them to the gym for viewing.
The work was grueling. The embalmers worked on floors so slick with the blood drained from the bodies they had to use tar paper for traction. Texas City embalmer Bradley Parker recalled makeshift embalming tables constructed from cement blocks; photographs of the garage interior show bodies laid out on wooden crates. The condition of the bodies made it hard to embalm. Student George Montgomery remembered using hypodermic injection because the bodies were too damaged for traditional arterial embalming. Landig’s colleague Melvin Garton recounted the challenges presented by a lack of instruments, noting, “A needle was definitely a prize.”8 Eventually, students from the Dallas Institute of Mortuary Science flew to Texas City, bringing 60 cases of embalming fluid and a supply of instruments. Other staff from multiple funeral homes in Dallas, Houston, Waco, Fort Worth, Austin, and Corpus Christi also provided much needed relief to the exhausted volunteers, some of whom worked up to 72 hours straight with no rest.9 Over one week, embalmers processed an estimated 385 bodies at the garage.10
The funeral industry also played a significant role in helping Texas City commemorate its dead. Funeral homes throughout southeast Texas organized many of the services for identified bodies in the days and weeks following the disaster. For example, workers at J. Levy & Brother in Galveston handled 35 bodies after the explosion. More significant, however, was the industry’s participation in the public funeral for the unidentified dead on June 22. According to Garton, “The funeral directors of South Texas responded to the call for their services in the usual splendid manner.”11 Funeral directors from 49 establishments provided material and equipment, including hearses for each of the 63 bodies. The victims were placed in identical silk-lined, cypress coffins and transported individually to the burial site.12
The individual demarcation of the unidentified remains, however, was an illusion. The bodies buried that day were those from Camp Wallace, a nearby naval base, where the DBC had moved the unidentified remains on April 22. Although the remains were beginning to deteriorate, the DBC decided to delay burial because several families “begged [officials] … not to bury the people before we could give their loved ones more time to identify them.”13 However, most of the bodies at Camp Wallace were “just arms, legs, skulls, torsos.”14 When the Camp Wallace morgue officially closed two months later, what remained to be buried were mere parts from dozens of bodies, co-mingled together beyond distinction. As such, the decision to bury these remains in 63 separate coffins, carried inside 63 hearses, was an attempt to reassert the physical and personal individuality of each victim. While this did not salve all wounds – survivor Gwen Neugent recalled, “It was a horribly sad day for everyone as we stood on the outskirts of town and buried the remains of sixty-three people. We didn’t know if Daddy was one of them or not” – the public funeral honored those who could not be claimed, and marked the closing of a chapter for Texas City.15
The chapter on COVID-19 is still wide open and, for many of us, watching the death toll climb can be an unnerving daily ritual. Stories continue to emerge about temporary morgues, stacks of bodies, and the disruptions to our traditional funeral rituals. Yet, concentrating on these sad stories alone does a disservice to the death care industry that is stepping forward, as it always does, to care for the dead – and, by extension, for all of us – during times of darkness. The story of the Texas City tragedy reminds us of the tremendous lengths that funeral industry workers have gone in caring for the dead and the living, which can provide us some comfort as we begin to collectively mourn those lost to the pandemic.
- There was a second explosion on the morning of April 17. The initial blast had pushed the ship High Flyer into another docked vessel, the Wilson B. Keene, also loaded with ammonium nitrate. Both ships burned for several hours before exploding, killing another two people. Return to text.
- Bill Minutaglio, City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 175. Return to text.
- Elizabeth Wheaton, Texas City Remembers (San Antonio, TX: Naylor Company, 1948), 16; and “The Texas City Tragedy,” American Funeral Director 70, No. 5 (May 1947): 47. Return to text.
- Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Business in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 47. Return to text.
- Laderman, 80. Return to text.
- Hugh Stephens, Texas City Disaster, 1947 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 69–70. Return to text.
- “The Texas City Tragedy,” 47. Return to text.
- “The Texas City Tragedy,” 47, 72. Return to text.
- “Patricia Inman Daniel,” in Wheaton, 39. Return to text.
- Melvin Garton, “Dignified Last Rites for 63 Unknown Texas Dead,” The Southern Funeral Director 57 (July 1947): 34. Return to text.
- Garton, 17. Return to text.
- Garton, 17, 34. Return to text.
- “C.A. ‘Ollie’ Quinn,” in Wheaton, 181. Return to text.
- “W.E. ‘Ted’ Harvey,” in Wheaton, 79. Return to text.
- “Gwen Neugent,” in Wheaton, 157. Return to text.