CHALMETTE, La. — Hundreds of mourners dropped notes, cards and letters — many of them stained with tears — into a steel-gray casket on Saturday in a symbolic burial of Hurricane Katrina.
One letter written by a child in red crayon said: "Go away from us." Another note remembered one of the 1,800 victims of Katrina: "R.I.P. Gloria, I will always love you." The casket, along with some of the anger, grief and frustration, was later interred under an appropriately dark sky as rain pounded umbrellas.
"I asked for no more suffering, for everything to come back to where it was," Walter Gifford, 47, said of his note. He rebuilt his home and moved back to the area near New Orleans. "I ask for the sadness for so many to end."
The church that celebrated the Mass, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, was flooded five years ago just like all but two buildings in St. Bernard Parish.
"I cried a lot while I wrote my letter," said Nancy Volpe, 61, who moved back into her house in November. "But I'm finally home. I can't tell you how much better I know the meaning of that word — home."
When the casket was finally closed, people applauded.
"I've been to many funerals," said Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond. "But I'm sure this is the first time I've heard applause when they closed the casket."
Funeral director Floyd W. Herty Jr. planned the service.
"I've been a funeral director all my adult life, and I know the power the service has to let people begin healing," Herty said.
The funeral was one of dozens of events planned to mark the fifth anniversary of the massive storm that wrecked New Orleans, south Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Sunday, President Barack Obama will speak at Xavier University — which, like 80 percent of New Orleans, was flooded when the levees failed.
He will remember those who died and reassure the others who have returned that he is committed to completing the rebuilding that couldn't even start in New Orleans for a month after the Aug. 29, 2005 storm, because floodwaters were still being pumped out of the city.
A march and "healing ceremony" were also scheduled in the Lower 9th Ward, where many houses still stand vacant, with a circle painted on them indicating they had been searched and whether bodies were in them.
The city of New Orleans will mark the anniversary with a quite ceremony tonight, including a tolling of the bells of St. Louis Cathedral, the famed building overlooking Jackson Square, and a candlelight vigil for the dead.