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What happens when you can't afford to die in Charleston?

A Forgotten Field

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The average American funeral — the whole viewing and burial treatment that we imagine as obvious when a person dies — will run a family well over $7,000, according to statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association.

Most Americans couldn't pay for their own services today. For many families, the emotional burden of loss is immediately followed by the stress of financial consideration. It takes a group effort and days of logistics, from fundraising to coordinating with out-of-state friends and family, to properly say goodbye to loved ones.

"We have to work with the family and try to figure out their needs, and then somehow try to work with them," says Robert Parks, a managing director at J. Henry Stuhr's, an upscale funeral home with multiple locations in the Charleston area. "We may not be putting them in a $15,000 casket."

For $800 to $1,000, families can cremate their loved one at a number of discount crematoriums in the Lowcountry, but it's easy to see how some friends and families of loved ones who have passed on could find themselves scrounging pennies even for that.

"Certain segments of the population certainly used to not believe in [cremation] at all," says Rev. Rob Dewey of the Lowcountry Community Chaplaincy. "But now, because the cost is about a $9,000 difference, you do see a lot of that."

Dewey says that the cost of funerals for struggling families is sometimes covered by generous congregations.

"We will do counseling for folks that are grieving, whether it's a traumatic death or someone who's died of a natural death," Dewey says. "We will certainly preside at the funeral and work with the funeral home and help get the person a service, so we can work with the families that way. We're a nonprofit, so we just don't have much extra money."

With all that in mind, it's a little surprising that a mostly forgotten potter's field nestled in a rural-suburban neighborhood on Johns Island gets relatively little use.

The Mary Ann Point Indigent Cemetery (or potter's field, or pauper's grave, for those not bothered by slightly antiquated and insensitive terminology) is a 2.66-acre street-facing lot surrounded by towering trees at 3778 Mary Ann Point Road.

Charleston County acquired the property in 1961 from Alice Beckett of Johns Island. The County buried an unknown number of unclaimed or indigent people at the lot over the years, according to the Coroner's Office, until the Medical University of South Carolina entered a 99-year lease for the property, at the cost of $1 per year, in 1996.

MUSC returned the lot to the County in 2004 after it found no use for it.

Charleston County coroner Rae Wooten says she hasn't buried any remains in the field since her appointment in 2006.

Former coroner Susan Chewning, who advocated for the use of the property as a potter's field, laid 22 unclaimed, unidentified, or indigent people to rest in the field in June 2005, with dates of death ranging from 1993 to 2004.

These days, those whose bodies go unclaimed, have no traceable family, and have no money in their estate to cover final arrangements, are cremated and kept in the Coroner's Office after multiple attempts to locate a next-of-kin. The Charleston County Probate Court will sometimes appoint a Special Administrator for one last investigation into the person's family and estate before approving a final disposition and cremation.

"The only way we do that is if we've exhausted any way I can think of to notify and identify family and encourage them to take responsibility," says coroner Wooten.

The de facto no-burial policy for unclaimed decedents has proven useful in recent years. Four different remains have been claimed by relatives after cremation under Wooten's direction, and 12 were claimed and buried by a veteran's association called Missing in America (MIA), which since 2007 has been working to locate, identify, and inter the cremated remains of former servicemen and women.

Wooten's office currently holds the cremated remains of 69 unclaimed people, with deaths as recent as this year. One of those 69 has yet to be identified, and some have been renounced by their next-of-kin.

A crumpled can of Bud Light and an empty bottle of Fireball whiskey adorn the strip of grass separating the now-unused Johns Island potter's field from a two-lane road. A line of demarcation for those going somewhere from those who had nowhere else to go.

The unmarked field is sectioned off by a low chain-link fence. The grass is mowed, but no headstones, benches, or signs point to life, past or present.

Some neighbors don't even know it's there. A man who lives across the street (and declined to be identified) inherited his house from his mother. He says he thinks the lot used to be a cemetery, but he's no longer sure.

The field is flanked by an upcoming eight-home development by Rising Tide Homes on one side, and the home of Laura Wood on the other, who sat smoking on her porch with her two dogs early one morning.

"Nothing's eerie or anything," she said. "I didn't even know what it was until probably about four years ago. Somebody told me and I was like, 'Oh really?'"

Both neighbors say they don't really notice anyone coming to look at the field, but the County says that the lot is inspected four times a year, and the next inspection is scheduled for the second week of April.

Parks, the downtown funeral director, says the aesthetics of the field leave much to be desired, even if he knows it to be a last resort for the County and those buried under it.

"Have you been out there?" he asked. "I guess my impression is it's stark. It's a field. There's just an absence there that is somewhat haunting to me."

The lot's current neighbors aren't the only ones confused about the status of the field.

Cheryl Ludlam, co-owner of Rising Tide Homes, seemed unaware that her properties would be built next to the public cemetery when first reached by CP, though she later clarified that she saw no problem with it.

The real estate agent marketing the unfinished homes, Josh Walden of Southern Shores Real Estate Group, was similarly confused.

"I'm not sure where that is to be honest with you," he said in a phone call. "I have no knowledge about the potter's field or anything as far as that goes."

A spokesperson for MUSC could not locate anyone at the medical school who was part of the transactions with the County.

It is unclear how many total remains, cremated or not, are buried at the Mary Ann Point Indigent Cemetery as of today.

Paul Brouthers, the coroner for Dorchester County since January 2017, says he hasn't had to deal with unclaimed deaths in his short time in office, but that his policy doesn't differ much from that of Charleston County's.

"It is my practice to have a conservator appointed through the Probate court to handle the estate and final disposition of the remains if there is truly no next of kin located, or funds to bury them," Brouthers said in an e-mailed statement to CP. "Once we have the conservator appointed, we will go forward in order to cremate the remains, and the remains will be stored in my evidence facility until such time that someone claims them."

In Berkeley County, the practice of cremating unclaimed remains and keeping them in the office, in his case the morgue, is very much alive.

"Just recently, two months ago, I returned some remains to a family, and the person died two years ago," county coroner William Salisbury said in a phone interview. "That's why I don't wanna bury them."

He was dealing with a particularly troubling case at the time of our phone call.

"This man was living in an assisted living center and walked away and had dementia and died from hypothermia, froze to death," he said. "He was found on the steps of a church when the pastor showed up at 8 in the morning.

"I had him on Live 5 News last night — his picture," he said. "The U.S. Marshall Service, someone's been trying to locate something — intelligence databases we can go through."

He says his office currently houses 18 unclaimed cremated remains.

"I've had a lot of luck locating them," he added. "Like I told you, we work real, real hard to locate them, but there's some of them we can't locate. Believe it or not, there's people that have no one."

Coroner Wooten says that, every now and then, her office will facilitate burials of indigent or unclaimed people with congregations and community groups who step up to help. She stresses the importance of making early arrangements for something most of us don't think anything about until it's too late.

"I would love something positive to come out of this conversation, and that is to encourage folks and individuals to make pre-arrangements for their deaths, to encourage families to plan where they want to be buried, and ideally to go on and arrange for that," she says. "If it happened suddenly, they're devastated by the loss, they can't think well, and it's just another overwhelming decision for them to make in the throes of their grief.

"Nobody wants to talk about their own deaths, so we don't talk about that," she continues. "We plan to build a house. We don't wanna plan for our own deaths. So it becomes a non-topic of discussion."


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