Ceme­tery seeks DNA to help ID re­mains dis­placed by hur­ri­cane

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY MARTHA QUILLIN [email protected]­sob­server.com

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.


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.


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.”

MARTHA QUILLIN [email protected]­sob­server.com

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.

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