On Monday morning, I went in search of the Richland County Cemetery, a place where the coroner’s office buries the cremated remains of unclaimed bodies and those whose families can’t afford a burial.
I wanted to make sure I knew where I was going because, several days later, I planned to attend a burial service there.
The cemetery, here since the 1960s, was hard to find. Actually, almost impossible. Behind a collection of industrial buildings near Two Notch Road. Up a slight hill on an unmarked gravel road full of ruts, damaged by the flood. Through a stand of scrub oaks to a place that, at the outset of my mission, seemed terribly sad. Gut-wrenching if you want to get right down to it.
As it turned out, I was not the only one looking for the place. A battered gray car pulled up behind my truck.
A small woman climbed out of the passenger side of the car. She looked weary and she looked at the cemetery – a less-than-half-acre plot of dirt and struggling grass, surrounded by a rusty chain link fence.
A tear rolled down her face, making a tiny dark track on her cheek. Then another tear. And another.
“My sister went to the hospital,” Mildred Calloway said of her sibling who would be buried here two days hence.
“Vanessa couldn’t breathe. She had COPD. She died on October 30. She was five years older than me and I just turned 53. There were 10 of us. I’m the baby. We were really close, really close. That’s why it’s so hard to believe.”
Mildred looked around the cemetery, at the red and white sign on the fence that was missing several letters and noted that vandalism of the place was “PUNISHABLE UP TO 10 YEARS IN PRISON.”
“We didn’t have any money to bury Vanessa,” she said.
“I feel terrible. I feel horrible. It’s like nobody cares. Lord, if I could bury her somewhere else I would, but I can’t. I can’t do anything about it.”
Mildred looked into the hazy sky – smoke from the mountain wildfires. She seemed to be searching for something. Her sister, perhaps.
“I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t have no insurance. I hate it that I have to bury you here. I ain’t wanted you in a place like this.”
I asked Mildred what she remembered about growing up with Vanessa. That brought a smile.
“We did everything together. We made mud pies. We threw sticks in the trees to knock down the pecans.”
I asked Mildred how she found out about the cemetery.
“A niece went online and told me she’d seen this place that would bury my sister for free. I was to the point where I couldn’t think straight.”
Before we parted ways, I asked Mildred where she was living.
“I’m in a hotel at the moment. I’m in the process of moving.”
With that, we said good-bye. We hugged and I told her I would see her on Wednesday.
Two mornings later, at 9:30 a.m., the sky was still smoky.
Mildred was accompanied by a handful of family members. She made her way to a corner where 29 holes had been dug and where 29 white boxes were resting at the bottom of each one. Small gold markers were set by each hole, as well as tidy, petite piles of fresh dirt.
She found her sister’s marker and knelt down.
“I’m so sorry about the way things went,” she cried. “You deserve so much better. Oh my God.”
A member of the coroner’s staff opened the burial service. “We are here to honor these lives that have been lived,” she said.
Someone murmured “Amen.” Traffic could be heard passing by in the distance. A bird in a nearby pine tree chirped.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts continued the short service. “Some people say this is a sad place to be. I don’t agree with that. There are people out here who love the people we are burying today and that is special … All the heartache and hard times they’ve had, they are all over with.”
Another murmured “Amen.”
The service ended after the coroner read the names of the 29 people being buried. Another member of the coroner’s office began shoveling dirt over each of the holes.
The sky seemed to be getting bluer. Perhaps the smoke was lifting.
Mildred held a grandbaby on her hip. She smiled down at her sister’s grave. At the white box. The gold marker.
“I feel better,” she said. “The service was real nice. It was real nice and I thank them for that. I know Vanessa is buried. I know where she’s at. And it feels a whole lot better.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.