About two hours before the University of South Carolina was set to play Western Carolina in its final home football game of the 2016 season, Gamecock Park was at full throttle.
Thousands of people were milling about — laughing, drinking, rooster crowing — in the vast Bluff Road tailgating complex, which opened in 2012 across the street from Williams-Brice Stadium at the former site of the State Farmers Market. The USC marching band was performing, Gamecock cheerleaders were dancing and gyrating, and garnet-clad fans were crowding around to listen and look.
The aroma of grilling hamburgers filled the air. In the grassy southeast corner of the park, youngsters careened around inside a number of inflatable bounce houses, and ran back and forth between a host of contests and games that had been set up. Corporations had booths set up, and a private party was going on under a large tent.
But, in the midst of all that excitement and pageantry, observant fans might have noticed a small sliver of fenced-in land — about 1,900 square feet, less than half the size of a football end zone — right along Bluff Road, which sat quiet and unoccupied. And what they might not know is that, even though the tiny tract of land juts into the university’s showplace tailgating park, it is actually a privately owned piece of property.
For several years, the little fenced-in lot has, for many, been an empty game day curiosity. However, South Carolina real estate developer Whit Suber has a plan that would change all of that. If Suber’s idea comes to fruition, people could choose to be on the plot of land in the shadow of the football stadium for eternity.
Suber, a USC graduate who lives on Fripp Island but has various business dealings in Columbia, wants to put a columbarium — which is an above-ground structure that holds cremated human remains — on the site.
That’s right: Dead people's ashes would be interred right across the street from the stadium. And, to hear Suber tell it, they are lining up to do it. He says he’s had hundreds of inquiries from people who want a spot for themselves or for loved ones in the would-be columbarium that could cost Suber and his partners millions to develop.
He even has one plan in which the columbarium structures would spell out "U-S-C."
Suber notes that, for as long as most folks can remember, people chose to be buried or interred in their hometowns, mostly for reasons of nostalgia and sense of place. However, in what has become, in his words, a more “transitional” society, he thinks those ideas are changing.
“For many people college is like your hometown,” Suber says. “That is the moment of nostalgia. Those are the formative years of your life. If you boil down four of the most valuable or influential years of your life, for a whole host of people it was their college experience. Particularly as we move into a society that bounces around a little bit more.
“People want to be laid to rest in a place that symbolizes their nostalgia, the special memories and special friends.”
What might seem like a simple — if unusual — idea to some is actually a bit of a multi-layered saga.
The little strip of land in question actually has direct ties to Gamecock football game day lore, with connections to the famed Cockaboose railroad tailgating cabooses and their developer, the late Ed Robinson.
There is also an element of the bitter South Carolina-Clemson rivalry mixed in. Robinson’s stepson, Lance Garrison, who Suber says went to Clemson, reportedly has used the fenced-in area in recent years to park an RV when the Gamecocks and Tigers play at Williams-Brice.
And then there is the University of South Carolina itself. The school was mostly tight-lipped about Suber’s idea when approached by Free Times, but officials there say they don’t think a columbarium inside a tailgating park is appropriate.
Influential USC board member Eddie Floyd grimaced when recently asked about Suber's plans: “I think it is absolutely awful. I just don’t think that’s the place for a graveyard. It’s very simple. It’s not where it should be.”
Residents, fans and even local politicians seem split as to whether having people’s ashes interred just feet from the football stadium is proper and in good taste. Some openly reject the idea, while others are more understanding. One Midlands attorney told Free Times he is hoping to have his father’s remains placed in a niche at the columbarium.
A pair of professors at Presbyterian College who teach a course on Southerners' fervor and devotion for college football wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with such an idea.
“It really has become this civil religion, from birth until death,” Presbyterian history professor Michael Nelson says. “I know there’s already [college team] caskets out there that people can be buried in. Now the fact that you are going to have the actual location, I think it further kind of sanctifies that place. We already think of [stadiums] as kind of cathedrals, and I’ve kind of suggested that the Jumbotrons have become the altars.
“It really doesn’t surprise me. In some places it’s deeper than family, deeper than what we think of as regular religion.”
The story of the tiny strip of land that knifes into Gamecock Park actually has origins connected to the iconic Cockabooses that sit along an old former CSX rail bed just east of Williams-Brice Stadium.
Robinson dreamed up the Cockabooses, which opened in 1990 and, in the quarter century since, have become a staple of football game days outside the stadium, and the subject of numerous features during game broadcasts.
Robinson owned the old rail bed the Cockabooses sit on, and the rail bed extended to the west side of Bluff Road into the land that, at the time, housed the State Farmers Market.
“Basically, you literally had a bunch of rotten lettuce and all that kind of stuff,” Suber says, of the portion of the land that extended into the Farmers’ Market. Suber says the little strip was a completely nondescript tract behind some buildings in the market.
Robinson died of cancer in 1998. After his passing, the 1,900-square-foot piece of land that is now being considered for a columbarium remained with his family. For the last several years, it has been held in a limited liability corporation, of which Garrison, Robinson’s stepson, is the registered agent.
Free Times made numerous attempts to speak with Garrison and was not successful.
Now, Suber says he and several partners — all of whom he says are Gamecock fans — have a contract to purchase the land for the columbarium for about $850,000. He says that closing on the property is “imminent.”
In addition to the land purchase, Suber says building the columbarium could cost from $350,000 to $1.6 million. All of the plans call for between 2,200 and 2,400 niches, which are the compartmental shelves upon which urns are placed. Suber says he has not yet finalized how much a niche will cost.
“We intend to make it gardenesque and awesome. We are sparing no expense in our plans. This is going to be one of the most expensive columbariums the world has ever seen. The pharaohs spent less money,” Suber says with a laugh.
One of Suber’s columbarium plans has structures fitting neatly onto the property as it exists. That plan calls for two, straight, roughly 10-foot tall, 57-foot long structures.
However, Suber says other plans would overlap slightly onto USC-owned land. One of those plans calls for three columbarium structures on the property, and they would be in shapes that spell out "U-S-C." Though he says he has an easement that would allow for overlapping onto school property, he says the university would have to sign off on it.
That could be a problem.
Free Times sent USC officials several questions about the Bluff Road sliver of land, and Suber’s columbarium. USC spokesman Wes Hickman’s response was succinct.
“We do not believe that is an appropriate use of this tiny parcel of land inside of Gamecock Park,” Hickman replied.
When a Free Times reporter approached USC Athletics Director Ray Tanner about the columbarium on Nov. 18, the former national champion baseball coach said simply he would stick by Hickman’s one-sentence statement.
Meanwhile, USC President Harris Pastides says he does not know enough about Suber’s columbarium.
“Nobody’s asked me about it," Pastides said after a recent USC board of trustees meeting. "I don’t know how fans would feel about it. I’ve heard some people are against it. I’m just not familiar enough with the plans. Right now, I think it’s a private development thing.”
Perhaps most troubling for Suber, if he wants the go-ahead for a columbarium plan that overlaps slightly onto USC property, is that Floyd — a powerful trustee for whom the school’s boardroom is literally named — doesn’t want a columbarium essentially inside USC's tailgating lot.
That said, if Suber is willing to go with a plan that would place the columbarium structures within the property as it currently exists, there appears to be little the university could do to stop him. The city's Board of Zoning Appeals approved a key variance for Suber in August, when it said he did not need to provide any parking spaces for the columbarium.
Suber is chafed by the idea that the university would be against the columbarium, if only because, he claims, the school has never made a formal, written offer to purchase the finger of land.
“It’s fair and important to say, and it’s a part of the narrative on all of this stuff, the fact of the matter is if you look at the history, they never made a run at this property whatsoever,” Suber says.
As a public entity, USC is prohibited by law from paying an exorbitant amount above tax assessed value for a piece of property. According to Richland County public records, the assessed value of the small patch of land at 1011 Bluff Road is $2,500. So, the university itself couldn’t pay $850,000 for the land, like Suber is.
However, Suber suggests there was nothing stopping a university booster or donor from making a legitimate offer for the land, and then gifting it to USC.
Hickman, the university spokesman, did not respond to Free Times' question as to whether the school or its foundation had ever made a formal offer for the property.
Some Gamecock fans on online message boards say that there is an element of the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry going on here, since Garrison reportedly is a Tiger fan.
On the day of the South Carolina-Western Carolina game, USC fan Marc Young was hanging out with his family in Gamecock Park. When asked about the little strip of land where the columbarium might go, Young sighed. He said he had been following the subject “as much as [he] can without getting frustrated.” He says he thinks the proposal to place dead people’s ashes right outside USC’s stadium has roots in the Palmetto State clash.
"In the shadows of Willy B, what better way to piss off 80,000 strong?” Young says.
Suber scoffs at that notion.
“I would argue that [Garrison] has treated this [piece of land] with enormous amounts of respect,” Suber says. “I can assure you, if I owned a similar piece of land next to [Clemson’s] Memorial Stadium, it wouldn’t look like this. I doubt I’d have been as respectful."
From Birth Until Death
Outside of any rancor over the little plot of land it might rest on, there are those who find the concept of a columbarium in the shadows of Williams-Brice Stadium intriguing.
Gamecock football is something that has deep meaning for many. It’s a family tradition that passes from one generation to the next, one that builds bonds that seemingly will not break.
Such is the case with David Marshall, an attorney who lives in Columbia but practices law in Orangeburg. Marshall is a USC graduate and a lifelong, die hard Gamecock fan. It was a love he shared with his father, Terry. Though Terry didn’t attend USC (he went to undergrad at Vanderbilt and medical school at Tennessee), he became a devoted Gamecock when he moved his family to South Carolina in the 1980s.
Dr. Terry Marshall, who spent more than 30 years running the neonatal intensive care unit at Greenwood’s Self Regional Medical Center, died suddenly in July at the age of 64.
David Marshall says, after his father passed, the family found a note that he penned back in 2004, which had a specific request.
“The note said, ‘If it’s football season, take my urn to a USC game, just to tailgate. Don’t worry if we lose. I’m used to it,’” Marshall says. “I thought that was really neat. It was at about that same time that I heard about this [columbarium] idea. I didn’t know it was Whit’s idea, but I read about it on message boards and everywhere else, that they were considering this columbarium.”
Marshall says he followed through with the wishes on his father’s note and took his urn tailgating at the USC-Texas A&M game earlier this season. As for where his father's remains will end up permanently, Marshall says that will be up to his mother. However, he says he is interested in placing them at the columbarium.
“I think there are a lot of people with my dad’s mentality, where Carolina athletics is such a part of their life,” Marshall says. “They check the message boards every day. They follow recruiting. They check practices. It becomes a part of their daily life, even in the offseason. If it’s that important to them, [the columbarium] is a place where they can be linked to it forever and it would be something special. I think it’s a good idea. There are probably a lot of people that have that same mentality.”
Marshall says he attends almost every home football game and would love to be able to stop by the columbarium before each contest for a moment to reflect on his father.
As for the appropriateness of cremated remains being housed outside of a football stadium, there are those who don’t seem to mind, at least in theory.
“Some people are Gamecocks for life,” says Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a USC graduate and former student body president. “I guess this gives them a chance to support the team for eternity. If it’s done tastefully and according to their wishes, who am I to judge?”
The columbarium would not be the first final resting place near a USC sports stadium. Stone Stadium, home to the Gamecocks’ men’s and women’s soccer teams, is bordered by the House of Peace Cemetery. The stadium is often called “The Graveyard.”
Billie Jo Godwin, a USC football fan from Beaufort who was milling about in Gamecock Park before the Western Carolina game, said if it's all right with the families of the deceased, then the columbarium was OK with her.
“I’m originally from right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so I get it,” she said, referring to that city’s love affair with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
Young, the Gamecock fan who says he sees a bit of USC-Clemson jousting in the possible placement of the columbarium, wants the remains to go elsewhere.
“There’s a place for everything,” he says. “Put it back up on campus. Put it somewhere more tasteful.”
News of the columbarium didn’t shock Terry Barr, one of the professors at Presbyterian College who teaches the "Religion of SEC Football" course that explores ravenous sports fandom.
Barr, an Alabama fan who says he would not likely choose to be interred next to a football stadium, adds that he understands why others would.
“I think, for many people, the one real constant they’ve had in their life, and they’ve grown up with, is their college football team,” Barr says. “It’s like my former therapist said to me, ‘They’ll never let you down.’ That doesn’t mean that they weren’t going to lose, and sometimes badly. But, they’ll always be there to give you the same thrill that you’ve always had. For many people, it becomes way too important. But it really is one of the only constants they’ve had in their whole life, so why not go on and spend eternity next to that constant?”
When asked if a columbarium would be popular outside of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, Barr didn’t hesitate.
“I think if you announced it there would be people lining up tomorrow to get themselves in there,” Barr says. “I think it would be an enormous sell. If you bought the land and built it and were looking to make a profit, you’d make a killing. No pun intended.”
“It Will Become a Shrine”
Despite USC's less-than-welcoming vibe for the columbarium, Suber thinks it is an outside-the-box idea that could become a game day hallmark.
He says one aspect that draws him to the plan is that it would be on land that has a connection to the Cockabooses. He says the Cockabooses are USC’s equivalent to The Grove tailgating area at Ole Miss or The Arch at the University of Georgia.
“[The Cockabooses] were one of the most unique ideas and are a signature item of our entire football experience,” says Suber, who has sold a number of condominiums and parking spaces near Williams-Brice through the years. “It came from somebody who was thinking differently and I think it’s kind of cool to consider you’d be doing a project like [a columbarium] on property that was born out of the same kind of experience.”
Suber says he has heard interest from people connected with a number of other schools, including Texas A&M and Penn State, about the possibility of locating columbariums near their stadiums. But he insists his main interest lies with placing one near Williams-Brice.
“This is my college,” he says. “I want this thing to be an absolute hallmark. I want it to be the coolest thing, not only because it is my school, but I want to use it as an example when we go on to other ones.”
Suber insists a portion of the proceeds from the project would go to charity, with one possibility being a scholarship fund for children who have survived cancer or who had a parent die of cancer.
While he doesn’t have a firm timetable for construction, Suber says things will move quickly once it gets going.
“Once construction starts it will only take about 20 days to build it,” he says. “Basically it’s kind of built off-site. These are granite walls. They are built, polished and all that kind of stuff at other locations, then brought here and put together."
While some might find the thought of a columbarium alongside the stadium strange, Suber says it will happen.
“We’re doing it and we are doing it here,” Suber says. “We have investment dollars well into the millions. We are serious and we believe in it. I’m really, really proud of the idea. I think it’s one of the best ideas I ever thought of. You cannot think of a better use for this property than this.”
If the columbarium does become a reality, it remains to be seen how popular it may or may not become.
But Nelson, the Presbyterian professor and SEC fandom expert, has an idea.
“It will become a shrine, as the stadiums themselves have become,” Nelson says.