JOPLIN — Nearly three weeks since a tornado cut a devastating scar through Joplin, Parker Mortuary's Tom Keckley can finally take stock — and a bit of a breather — from a whirlwind stretch in his line of work unlike anything he's seen.
The most powerful of twisters that laid waste May 22 to a six-mile swath of the city left a body count that would soar to some 150 victims, posing what turned out to be an inescapable, numbing challenge to Joplin's three funeral homes: How possibly can they handle that volume of carnage without sacrificing compassion for the lost souls' survivors?
What has transpired in the interim might be one of Joplin's bigger stories of grace and grit. Parker Mortuary and Mason-Woodard Mortuary, relying on anticipatory planning, volunteerism and embalmers from far-flung areas, scrambled to arrange more than 70 of the tornado-related funerals or memorial services in the tightest of time frames, all of them mingled in with their usual business.
"I would venture to say that no mortuary here had seen this amount of people," said Bruce Woodard of Mason-Woodard, which has handled 40 tornado victims while still tending to families of nine other people who died of other causes.
The tornado "more than doubled our regular service load," Woodard said.
"With help and God's grace, we've been able to stay in front of it," Keckley added, regarding the 31 tornado-associated funerals Parker has arranged — nearly matching in a couple of weeks the 40 to 45 calls for arrangements his parlor gets any given month.
"I'm in a fog," he said.
It's been that way for Keckley since the moments after the tornado tore through Joplin, taking out the city's biggest hospital, a Walmart and Home Depot along with thousands of homes and businesses.
Parker Mortuary and the more than 80 people attending two wakes there were spared, huddling in an inside corridor from the storm that knocked out the power to the funeral parlor and its phone lines. Workers managed to rig two of the lines, partly using a battery backup.
Early whispers of perhaps hundreds of dead had Keckley and others at Parker instantly brainstorming, hashing out contingency plans, setting up a temporary in-house morgue "and trying to anticipate a large volume of calls" that eventually started streaming in to volunteers who Parker enlisted to field them.
"They rushed to our rescue to be of assistance," at times from other states, Keckley said.
The enormity of the tragedy actually helped Parker and Mason-Woodard. Although a handful of the bodies were taken to the funeral homes by private vehicles in the tornado's immediate aftermath, it was days before the state slowly began releasing the rest of the twister's dead to the undertakers from a makeshift morgue in refrigerated trucks.
"That time lag allowed us to get geared up," Keckley said. "We just turned our focus to putting processes in place so we could handle the largest amount of volume in the most efficient way and remain compassionate."
Parker workers gently encouraged relatives of the dead to consider graveside services or funerals away from the mortuary so the parlor "would not be completely inundated with one funeral running into another," Keckley said.
Parker was offered help to have some of its bodies embalmed at the state's temporary morgue but declined, convinced that doing the task itself would be the proper gesture to the grieving, Keckley said. A former Parker embalmer helped do some of the embalming one day; the parlor's Pat Irwin did the rest.
At Mason-Woodard, Woodard welcomed any help he ultimately got from outside embalmers and funeral directors who came to pitch in, knowing the number of bodies it began receiving three days after the tornado could overwhelm the parlor's staff.
"Within the first day, we had a list of 25 people that we'd be handling," Woodard said. "Over the next couple of days, that list continued to grow."
Woodard refused to farm out any of the dead to other funeral homes, clinging to the fact that the grieving had called for Mason-Woodard's services, not someone else's.
"Our philosophy from the get-go was that we weren't going to short a family," he said. "Whatever type of service they wanted, they got. If we took 100 people in, we did what it took."
Jenny Smith had no complaints. Having lost her brother, 59-year-old Glenn Holland, and his wife of 15 years, 48-year-old Lorie Holland, to the tornado that buried the couple in the rubble of their home, the Webb City woman credited Parker with aptly overseeing the joint funeral at Ozark Christian College "considering the enormity of what they were dealing with."
"I think, like the rest of us, they kicked into survival mode," she said. "They're probably going to need a much-needed rest when all this gets through."
Smith was especially touched by what she called a beautiful detail she said Parker arranged "in the midst of all this": the military send-off for her brother, who spent more than two decades in the Air Force.
"They made sure they did that, and it was wonderful," Smith said. "I know it meant a lot to my mom and dad."
It meant a lot to Keckley, who in the stoic funeral business is accustomed to locking away his emotions well inside his dark suits, figuring the families he serves expect his composure and clear thinking at a time they may not have that capacity.
But Keckley couldn't keep his tears from welling when the flag from Glenn Holland's casket was handed to the man's father.
"That touched me deeply," he said. "I felt so sorry for that father's loss, and at the same time I felt the beauty of that son's devotion to his country" and the sadness of a life claimed in a fickle outburst of nature.
"Sometimes, when you're in the midst of funeral arrangements, something really poignant will wash over you, and you feel your eyes burn and your nose run. Sometimes you can hold that back. Sometimes not."