At the end of a dirt lane off Old Clemson Road, two dozen residents quietly gather in a small cemetery to say goodbye to their loved ones.
The ceremony is brief, but it gives family and friends the opportunity to see their loved ones laid to rest, an opportunity that wouldn’t be possible without the compassionate efforts of the Richland County Coroner’s Office.
“Regardless of a person’s place in life when they die, whether they are living in a mansion or under a bridge, I feel everyone deserves respect and dignity in death,” said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.
About 800 people are buried in Richland County’s paupers’ cemetery, which is a final resting place for those whose remains are either unidentified or unclaimed or whose families can't afford a burial. The cemetery has existed for more than 50 years, though burial ceremonies honoring the deceased have only taken place since 2001, when Watts first became Coroner.
“Keeping remains catalogued on a shelf somewhere was not very dignified to me,” he said. “We started holding the ceremonies because I knew we could do better.”
The burials are held two or three times a year, organized by the Coroner’s Office and presided over by Dr. Tim Phillips, Associate Pastor at Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Columbia. During a July 12 ceremony, Phillips, who has volunteered his services for more than 15 years, recites scripture and reads aloud the names of the deceased while family and friends hold hands and bow their heads.
Deputy Coroner Dr. Delores Gulledge weaves through the small crowd, offering comforting words, hugs and tissues. Gulledge is coordinator of the County’s Community Awareness Response Education (CARE) Team, a group of 30 volunteers who provide emotional support to residents enduring the loss of a loved one. In addition to being present at burials, CARE Team members often accompany Coroner’s Office staff when they notify next of kin of a death.
“We used to be able to go next door to a neighbor, even in the middle of the night, and say ‘We have to deliver some bad news next door, would you come with us?’ And that way, when a person opened the door, there was at least one familiar face. But it’s not like that anymore with neighbors,” Watts said. “The CARE Team is making someone immediately available to provide emotional support for a person who’s just received devastating news.”
When the Coroner’s Office can’t immediately identify a person’s next of kin, or can’t identify the person at all, staff begins an in-depth and wide-reaching process to try to find answers.
“We use every means possible to identify a person,” said Dr. William Stevens, Deputy Coroner and Forensic Anthropologist. “DNA, fingerprints, dental and X-ray comparison, facial reconstruction and postings on national websites. If we have the identity but can’t locate family, we perform Internet searches, law enforcement database searches, public obituary notices, genealogical research and conduct interviews with friends and acquaintances.”
These efforts, which are assisted by sheriff’s department staff and resources, recently proved successful when a woman buried at the paupers’ cemetery in 2013 was identified in June 2018 by her sister, whose family long sought information in what had become a missing person case. Online records of those buried at the paupers’ cemetery helped the family, which lives out of state, solve her disappearance.
“I think there’s always a sense of closure for the family and some relief at the end of their search, based on what they share with us,” Stevens said. “Cases like this one are often very rewarding for us as well, in terms of being able to assist families and provide them with information about the stories of their lost loved ones.”
Stevens takes the lead on organizing the burial ceremonies at the County cemetery, digging holes where the cremated remains will be placed and making sure each grave is marked with a metal plate that lists, if known, the person’s name, date of birth and date of death. He is often the first person to arrive at the cemetery on the day of a burial, and the last to leave, after every family member has said goodbye and every grave has been properly covered.
For more information about the Richland County Coroner’s Office or paupers’ cemetery, or to learn about becoming a volunteer with the CARE Team, visit rccosc.com.