The horrifying power of a hurricane is usually measured in homes destroyed and lives lost, but in a storm as strong as Hurricane Irma even the dead were disturbed.
Residents of Big Pine Key, one of the hardest hit spots in the island chain, stumbled out of their battered shelters last week to find homes reduced to rubble, boats resting on roofs, cars covered in seaweed and one even more disturbing discovery.
Somewhere on Big Pine Key’s Avenue B, a casket lay popped open, its lid filled with water and a long-time occupant still inside, dressed in a baby blue suit.
“It was so bizarre,” said Larry Cumiskey, whose daughter’s boyfriend made the discovery and helped a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer close the casket and lift it into a pickup truck.
By mid-week, workmen were busy using cranes to right fallen mausoleums at the Dean Lopez funeral home’s Memorial Garden of the Keys across the highway from where the corpse was found. Doors to mausoleum drawers were missing or broken and the grounds were covered in crushed tree limbs.
A man who identified himself as an employee of the funeral home confirmed that the coffin with its unidentified blue-suited remains had originated in one of the cemetery’s granite mausoleum drawers. It’s now back in its proper resting place.
The corpse appears to be the only body displaced by the storm in the Keys, but not the only one in the state. The famous Key West Cemetery, which was relocated to Old Town after the Hurricane of 1846 washed up all the bodies at its previous beachside location, escaped any serious damage.
“We didn’t lose anybody,” cemetery sexton Russell Brittain said. “Nobody floated away.”
The cemetery is closed to local and tourists alike until workers can clean up the fallen trees and debris on the grounds.
“We did OK,” said Stanley Sabuk, owner of another nearby site, the Southern Keys Cemetery on Big Coppitt Key.
Several of the hundred-pound concrete lids to the above-ground graves in his cemetery were shoved aside by Irma’s waters, and some of the old trees that dotted the grassy lawn were toppled. The roof of the sales center and storage area was ripped off, Sabuk said.
Although Sabuk said the flooding turned his cemetery into a lake during the storm, all the bodies stayed within their state-mandated concrete vaults. Storms have been known to send caskets out of their cemeteries, he said, but not in the way most people imagine.
“I don’t know what movie it is, but it’s not like that scene where bodies are just popping out of the ground,” Sabuk said.
Hurricane Katrina and Rita famously uprooted thousands of coffins and vaults, sending the remains (some sans coffin) floating throughout the Gulf Coast area. Some barnacle-crusted tombs ended up in trees or in marshes, leaving disaster officials to play a grisly matching game as they sought to reunite the corpses with their resting places.
Irma did not have nearly the same effect on Florida. The handful of caskets set adrift by the storm’s flooding (or torn out by the winds, as was the case with one coffin entwined in the roots of a 100-year-old eucalyptus tree in Largo) stayed closed, and the fences around the cemeteries kept the floating caskets within the grounds.