St. Paul neighborhood not excited about hosting corpse warehouse

Neighbors are worried about stigma and decreased investment -- not to mention "ghosts" or "evil spirits."

Neighbors are worried about stigma and decreased investment -- not to mention "ghosts" or "evil spirits." Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

For those left behind, death takes up space. Both emotional, and physical.

Through Monday, 1,217 Minnesotans had died of COVID-19 since March 19. At first celebrated as a success story at curbing the spread of coronavirus, Minnesota then had not one, but two hotspots crop up on the national radar. Things have quieted lately, and starting today we're allowed limited use of indoor restaurant dining, gyms, movie theaters, and pools. 

We'll see how that goes, but we're not out of the woods yet. To that end, about a month ago, state officials announced they'd taken the practical step of seeking out additional space for the possible storage of dead bodies.

It recently dropped a little over $5 million on the now-vacant Bix Produce warehouse: a 71,000-square-foot refrigerated facility located in St. Paul’s North End.

If there comes a time when the state’s hospitals and funeral homes are officially overrun -- maybe during the second coronavirus wave that’s supposedly due this fall -- the dead will still have a “timely, dignified, and temporary” place to rest, based on the Department of Administration’s request for funds.

Some North End neighbors aren’t so into the idea, according to a letter sent to the state last week from county commissioners. The facility is right across the street from the McDonough Homes townhouse community, which is overwhelmingly populated by people of color and low-income residents. Some units are reportedly less than 150 feet away from the site.

And that’s a problem. A warehouse known to be full of dead bodies might have “severe implications” for future development in the area, the letter says. The warehouse, which is also right next to the popular Gateway State Trail, could forever associate the neighborhood unpleasantly with a time of tragedy and forced isolation. And that might make people think twice before investing in it.

Beyond that -- and we cannot emphasize this enough -- being forced to live next to a warehouse full of dead bodies is just depressing, gross, and spooky.

“Residents have reached out to express fear of religious pollution from dead bodies, the presence of ghosts or evil spirits,” the letter said, “And many other substantive concerns.”

It’s not fair, the commissioners say, to force that weird, haunted energy on an already struggling neighborhood, where most residents couldn’t afford to move away if they wanted to. They understand these bodies have to go somewhere, but say this should've been done more thoughtfully.

“As Ramsey County commissioners, we are all extremely sensitive to the racial and economic impacts of decisions made with the best of intentions,” the letter said. “For decades, the state has fallen into a pattern of making decisions that hurt our indigenous communities and people of color only to apologize decades later…. We urge you not to repeat this cycle again.”

On Friday, Minnesota's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director, Joe Kelly, responded with a letter of his own, acknowledging the issue as "sensitive, unpleasant, even frightening." But he maintained the state needed the ability to safely and respectfully store the dead, current systems were "inadequate" for the expected "surge," and the "entire metropolitan area" had already been searched for a comparable refrigerated building. This, Kelly wrote, was the only such site available for purchase. 

"We have seen horrific scenarios play out elsewhere with the temporary interment of bodies in shallow graves and body bags jammed into refrigerated trailers," he wrote.

He's right about that much: Horror stories have emerged from COVID-torn New York, where more than 17,000 have died, of bodies found rotting away in trucks parked outside funeral homes, and morgues under “extraordinary strain” for space and resources.

Kelly adds this building would only be used as a last resort -- like an "insurance policy" -- and would not be in use after the pandemic. 

Ramsey County still isn't satisfied. On Monday, the county's Equity and Community Engagement Response Team (RECERT) expressed "sincere disappointment" in how this process has gone and asked more questions. What other sites were considered? How was the state planning on presenting this information this to residents? How would they mitigate their fears? Would there be reparations for the affected businesses? 

Space and dignity, after all, are also luxuries we strive to afford to the living and the dead. Ramsey County staff say they are still in the process of communicating with the state about the North End’s difficulties with the project.