Levee breach may have disturbed cemetery

Friday, June 17, 2011

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted the Birds Point-New Madrid levee in early May, it claimed the livelihoods of dozens of farmers in the fertile farmland beneath.

Now there's evidence to suggest the floodway's activation may have disturbed the dead.

A corps archeologist this weekend will work alongside Mississippi County Coroner Terry Parker searching a 6.5-acre swath near the northernmost portion of the levee, where skeletal remains -- bone fragments -- have been discovered in the muck of the receded floodwaters.

"It could be an old burial site, an Indian burial site," said Parker, who has worked to secure the site for the search and retrieval team.

As of late Thursday afternoon, Parker said he wasn't sure whether the bone fragments were animal or human remains, but he believes the bone fragments might be from an unmarked family burial ground. Forensic experts also will investigate the possibility of a crime scene, a corps official said.

The Mississippi valleys around Southeast Missouri are filled with burial mounds, from ancient civilizations to early white explorers to family plots. There are plenty of Civil War dead buried in and around the floodway, too. The trick is determining the significance of the find. And that will take the work of anthropologists and forensic specialists, including officials from St. Louis University and the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office, Parker said.

Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said engineers anticipated some burial displacement could happen. With centuries of inhabitants buried in the region, unprecedented, powerful flooding disturbing plots was a distinct possibility, Pogue said.

"If they are Native American remains, we have protocols with tribal leaders and we will respect their wishes," Pogue said. Should the remains turn out to be Post-Columbian Europeans, reinterment would be up to local authorities.

But just who pays for the morbid work remains in question.

Mark Seesing, funeral director at Ford and Sons Funeral Home and member of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association's Disaster Response Team, will join the search team this weekend. He said the work of retrieval, identification and reinterment is painstaking.

"This is a pretty large area we need to look through," he said. The flood of 1993 washed away an active cemetery in Hardin County, Missouri. It took six months to return the dead to their proper burial sites, Seesing said.

Parker worries the damage could be more widespread.

"I hope that these are not remains disrupted and moved miles away from their original burial site," he said. "That's my fear, that the opening of this spillway has caused a very disrespectful disinterment of possible human remains."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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