Our local paper is doing a lot of stories about the flood. I thought you all might be interested in this one...
Among the supplies hauled into Rapid City in the days following the 1972 Black Hills flood was an especially graphic reminder of the 238 lives the tragedy claimed: Semi-trucks loaded with caskets.
"Obviously, we didn't have that many caskets in storage in the city," said Ozzie Osheim, who was one of 11 licensed funeral directors working in the city's three funeral homes at the time of the flood.
Combined, Rapid City funeral homes typically handled fewer than 400 funerals in a year. Within a matter of days, they found themselves with the harrowing task of having to prepare more than 200 bodies for burial or transport out of the city for funerals elsewhere. "So many people were being brought in those first few days. We worked from the early morning hours until 10 or 11 o'clock every night for days," he said of his fellow funeral directors.
Only cooperation, coordination and communication made the task possible, Osheim said, especially for those families that suffered multiple fatalities and whose loved ones ended up at different funeral homes.
Osheim worked for Catron Funeral Home, which he would later purchase in 1974. After the flood, his Jackson Boulevard funeral home found itself without electricity or running water, and 6 inches of muddy water standing on its floors. So Osheim went to work at the Campbell Paula Funeral Home, which also lost electricity and water but stayed dry. Portable generators and gravity-fed water trucks were brought in so the bodies could be cleaned, restored and prepared for burial. Only Behrens Funeral Home escaped the flood unscathed. By the third day after the flood, all the bodies were sent to Catron Funeral Home when it re-opened because the other two were at capacity. "They were just inundated. It was hard to find a place to put them all," Osheim recalled.
Eventually, 55 other funeral directors from around the state and area would volunteer their services in Rapid City. "These were people who just showed up and said, "How can I help?," Osheim said. The local funeral homes performed their services at one pre-determined fee.
Almost immediately, the decision was made that only committal services at the cemeteries, not full funerals in churches, would be allowed for any of the deceased that were buried in Rapid City. "Because of the number of deaths, it was decided to simply have gravesite services as the most expeditious way to take care of so many."
The Rev. Larry Dahlstrom, then pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in the heart of the flood zone, called the decision a wise one.
"There simply was not time for a full funeral. There would be three, four or five commital services going on at one time, all day long, at the various cemeteries," he said.
The funeral homes all agreed to a set schedule for gravesite services. One funeral home only scheduled on the hour, another on the half hour and the third set services on the quarter hour at the three main cemeteries in Rapid City at the time: Mt. View; Mt. Calvary; and Pine Lawn. At the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis, there were 23 burials in one day, Osheim recalled. Often the number of funerals held that day was limited only by how many graves could be dug in time. National Guardsmen helped with that task.
"The whole thing came down to cooperation between the funeral homes, the clergy and families," Osheim he said. "It went far more smoothly than you would have anticipated from the start."
Dahlstrom said most people understood that requirement. "I never had anybody say anything negative about that," he said. "Most people couldn't have come to funerals anyway. They were too busy cleaning up their own homes and businesses, or helping others do the same," he said.
Dahlstrom called it a "miracle" that his large church lost only three parishioners. An elderly couple who perished were buried in eastern South Dakota and Dahlstrom considers himself lucky to have had to perform just one burial rite. He officiated at the burial for Roland "Babe" Baumberger, the owner of Flowers by Leroy.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church records show that the late Msgr. ??? Doyle performed six burials in one day at Black Hills National Cemetery: four members of the Samphill family and the McPhersons.
Because he wasn't as busy as some clergy with burials, Dahlstrom found himself offering front-line pastoral care to grieving families who came looking for missing family members at funeral homes. People would describe the general physical characteristics of their loved one: age, gender, height, weight, and then Dahlstrom would make a "judgment call" on which of the survivors to take back to the temporary morgue for an identification. "It was hard. Some of the bodies that had been disfigured by the waters were hard to recognize," he said.
Osheim, who marks 60 years in the Rapid City funeral business this year, said the sheer volume of the deceased, and the fact that he personally knew so many of the flood victims, made the work especially difficult.
"There's no question there was lots of strain and pressure," he said, "but the most trying part was watching people come to a funeral home not just once, but several times over the course of several days, looking for their loved one. If you didn't find them at firm number 1, you went to firm 2 and then firm 3. That was the most difficult thing, knowing they went through the agony of going back repeatedly to find who they were loooking for. And if they didn't find them, they came back the next day."