Exposed Grave

A fallen tree unearthed a grave in a cemetery in Wagener Terrace. The Post and Courier is not including photos of the exposed remains out of respect for the dead. Brad Nettles/Staff

Look closely through the bristled roots of an upturned tree that likely fell during one of Charleston’s storms, and you’ll see human bones.

The cemetery where this exposed grave is located is overgrown. Condoms and fast-food wrappers litter the ground, and nearby tombstones are cracked. There's no rule that this sort of cemetery has to be pristine. But the owners of the site are supposed to take care of it, and they're not supposed to let remains lay in the open for months.

Nevertheless, the deceased person's bones have been lying within a stone's throw of a public road. The Post and Courier isn't including the site's exact location because some parties expressed concern the grave could be further compromised. 

There are a number of cemeteries in Charleston and across South Carolina that are neglected. Some have become victims of development. In this case, a storm is likely to blame. But those involved can't agree who is responsible for caring for this burial ground. 

Chris Maloney said he first noticed the exposed grave site around Memorial Day last year. He contacted the city's livability office in early October. Maloney said he has waited and watched for months as the site has been left unaddressed.

“It’s crazy that something like that could sit around and the city wouldn’t be concerned,” he said.

Dan Riccio, director of the city's Department of Livability and Tourism, first assigned an officer to the problem late last year. They have hesitated to give the church they think owns the property, Morris Street Baptist Church, a ticket for the unkempt site.

"Our approach is working with the property owner and being as sensitive as we can," Riccio said. "We know the constraints that some churches have."

He said officers are following up with the church. But he also said complaints about the human remains were not specific, and they never found them. Post and Courier reporters found the bones in less than 30 minutes. 

Exsposed Grave

A fallen tree damaged a grave marker from the 1930s in a cemetery in Wagener Terrace. The unearthed grave does not have a visible marker. Brad Nettles/Staff

Riccio said he assumed some graves might be exposed because he could tell by standing from the road that many are in disrepair. Michael Trinkley, an archaeologist and director of the state’s Chicora Foundation, visited the gravesite and said he saw the remains.

Most would miss the faded bones unless they knew where to look, though the fallen tree is visible from the manicured cemetery next door. Jerome Clemons, a trustee with Morris Street Baptist, said no church records indicate they own the site. Other nearby lot owners include Francis Brown Methodist, Union Baptist Church and the Friendly Charitable Association. The lot is in the shadow of Interstate 26, in a newly industrial area between the city’s only skate park and the Cooper River Brewing Co. 

State Archaeologist Jonathan Leader said some unkempt cemeteries may be purposeful, representing other community's traditions. An open grave being left open for months is probably not.

"I don’t think this is the type of thing a community would like to see happen, generally," Leader said.

Many families of slaves carried on African traditions of placing ornaments on graves. Sometimes they would plant trees at gravesites, which may have been the case with this now-exposed grave. The grave in question doesn't have a marker, though Leader said it may just be lost or hidden.

Storms frequently drag up old graves, and the archaeologist said he gets a number of calls about human remains each week. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency re-interred 33 caskets during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, for instance. The state’s Emergency Management Division coordinates the effort.

Disinterred remains don’t offer any public health threat, according to the World Health Organization; infections or diseases don’t survive long in the body after death.

“The main focus is making sure those loved ones are put back where they’re supposed to be,” said Derrec Becker, public information director for EMD.

It is less common for a grave to be left open for months, Trinkley said. 

He estimated it would take a few days and a few thousand dollars to fix the problem.

State law makes it a felony to damage or destroy burial grounds. Guidelines on what to do in the case of exposed bones are more scarce. Trinkley said it comes down to decency. Though the cemetery appears to be abandoned, the person buried there deserves the respect of a proper burial, Trinkley said.

"He does not have the option of telling us what he wants," he said.

Maj. Gen. Harold L. "Mitch" Mitchell, who lives in Beaufort, has found neglected cemeteries will remain that way unless someone takes an interest.

At some point, developers razed headstones at a local African-American cemetery in Beaufort, and no one stopped them. With help from the state archaeologist, Mitchell convinced the county to purchase the land. Now he is hoping to beautify it and give it a memorial that would mark at least some of the more than 100 people who had been buried there.

Mitchell has relatives buried there, but really his interest stems from his frustration over the removed headstones.

"It’s not something I could just walk away and pretend I didn’t see," he said.

He hopes to engage state legislators to advocate for laws that would protect and restore neglected sites.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.