Live 5 Investigates: Unclaimed human remains stack up in some Lowcountry counties
CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Stacked in the evidence room of the Beaufort County Coroner's Office are dozens of small boxes each containing the ashes of a county resident whose remains were not claimed following their death.
"They were someone's loved one. Each one of them has a story," Coroner Ed Allen said.
The 59 sets of remains were of people ranging in age from infants to seniors, with some remains dating back decades.
"Some of these we were able to contact family members on and they were reluctant about coming forward and claiming," Allen said. "Others, we have not found any family members."
Allen said the right thing to do is to have a place to bury the remains.
Such places are called "pauper's cemeteries".
Allen said he approached Beaufort County Council in 2009 with the idea, but the plan was not voted on because of a lack of support.
In Berkeley County, Coroner Bill Salisbury has 18 sets of human remains that are kept in the morgue.
He keeps the unclaimed ashes of one person, a 3-month-old girl, in his office. He says he prefers them to remain unburied in case a dependent surfaces.
"If I have the ashes here at my morgue, and a person comes five years from now, or whenever, I will be able to give them their loved one's ashes back," he said. "If we have them in a cemetery, that would be a situation where you'd have to dig up their remains."
Charleston County has a pauper's cemetery on Johns Island.
Coroner Rae Wooten said it's been several years since someone was buried on that plot of land, but that her office has the available space to handle any unclaimed remains.
In Dorchester County, Coroner Paul Brouthers said he hasn't had any new cases of unclaimed remains since he took office last year.
Some coroners in South Carolina say they strive to mimic how Richland County processes its uncollected remains.
The coroner's office holds several interments each year to bury urns containing such remains.
On a rainy day in February, the office buried nine of them.
Deputy Coroner William Stevens, Ph.D. helped to dig the graves himself.
"I think Columbia has a high homeless population unfortunately, and there's just a lot of circumstances these days where people aren't able to come up with the funds for a burial given the cost of full burials and funerals," he said."So we provide what we can."
Back in Beaufort County, County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said there are many reasons why a pauper's cemetery is nonexistent.
"If the county or the coroner assumes responsibility for burying folks, then guess what? We're going to have everybody - a lot of people - are going to expect the county to do the burial for them and we can't have that," Sommerville said, calling burial "a family responsibility."
Sommerville said he would fear that someone could be inappropriately buried in a manner that is inconsistent with their religion.
However, he said he welcomes another proposal to discuss.
"Sure, we'd entertain discussion on a very limited basis for very few folks who were clearly vetted and we waited as long as absolutely necessary or possible to make sure that nobody came to claim them," he said.
Allen said he will likely approach County Council about creating a pauper's cemetery once again in the coming year.
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