Cemetery seeks DNA to help ID remains displaced by hurricane
One indication of how devastating the 2016 flooding was from Hurricane Matthew is that not only are some of the living still displaced, some of the dead are, too.
In Goldsboro, in Wayne County — part of the region that took the worst beating from historic flooding that followed up to 15 inches of rain from the storm — the Neuse River reached 29 feet, 11 feet above flood stage. As it rose, it traveled out of its banks and inundated low-lying areas as far as four miles away.
City-owned Elmwood Cemetery, established in 1874 as a burial place for African-Americans, sits a half-mile from the river. Once the water started rising in the 23-acre burial ground, it just kept coming. It covered the sandy ground. It submerged the granite markers. It didn’t stop rising until all that was left dry was the flag pole and the cement finials atop the posts that hold the cemetery gates.
“Water covered everything,” said Tim Irving, the cemetery’s superintendent. “Everything you see here was underwater.”
Until, to everyone’s horror, some of what was underwater floated to the surface. Throughout the cemetery, 36 ground-level vaults were forced apart, releasing 36 coffins that had been buried between 1983 and 1997. It was legal then — and popular, because it was economical — to place the vaults so they were just below the earth’s surface, with the lid of the vault level with the ground.
The state banned such burials after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
‘THEY NEEDED TO BE TREATED WITH DIGNITY’
There was no obvious pattern to what happened. Vaults failed in different parts of the cemetery, from different eras, made by different manufacturers and handled by different funeral homes.
All they shared in common, says Rick Fletcher, Goldsboro’s public works director, was that they contained the remains of someone’s beloved, “And they needed to be treated with dignity.”
In the height of the emergency, crews in small boats snared the coffins and brought them to safety. They were stored for months while the city bought new coffins and vaults and set about trying to identify each set of remains.
The first 18 were easy, Irving said. Those contained water-tight plastic or metal tubes with identifying paperwork for the deceased, or the caskets still were partially contained within their vaults, which had inscribed markers set into the lids. Those 18 were reburied in their original resting places.
The other 18 presented a greater challenge. Separated from their vaults and missing the plastic tubes with the paperwork because some funeral homes didn’t use them, those remains were left to be identified by DNA.
The city of Goldsboro hired a Pennsylvania firm to handle the gathering of DNA samples, and after samples were taken, each set of unidentified remains was buried in its new casket and vault about a year after the hurricane. They are buried side by side in individual plots, each with a small, numbered stone marker, in a section of the cemetery the city tentatively plans to expand into soon.
SCOURING FOR CLUES
Cemetery records yielded the names of the 18 sets of remains and the dates of death, but only DNA will be able to determine which name goes with each one. The city got the results of the DNA tests on the remains about two months ago. All it needs now is a DNA sample from a family member of each one for a comparison.
But the cemetery doesn’t work with the families when people are buried at Elmwood. Funeral homes do that and are the keepers of the records about survivors.
“Unfortunately, two funeral homes in Goldsboro have gone out of business” since some of the 18 unidentified people were buried, Fletcher said, and the city was unable to locate their records.
City workers searched the internet and scoured newspaper microfiche for obituaries that might provide clues about living family members. For now, the original graves have been filled in, and Irving staked each one with a temporary marker bearing the name of the person who should be buried there.
Signs are posted throughout the cemetery asking visitors to call if they notice their loved one’s grave has been disturbed. So far, seven families have come forward and provided DNA samples. As identifications are made, individual caskets will be reburied in their original plots.
But families scatter and move away. Some never come back to visit their relatives’ graves, or at least, they haven’t come back since Hurricane Matthew. Not everyone is eulogized in an obituary when they die.
And so, 11 sets of remains await identification, and the city needs help tracking down family members whose DNA could give their loved ones back their names and their final resting places, next to their husbands or wives or children or parents.
The city doesn’t know when, but eventually, if all the remains can’t be identified, it will erect a marker explaining what happened and naming those who could not be returned to their original graves.
“It’s really emotional for people,” said Fletcher. “But we’re trying to do the right thing.”
The grave of Ezekiel Cox at the Elmwood Cemetery in Goldsboro bears a marker to indicate that DNA from family members is needed to help identify the remains.