It is a grim fact of Hurricane Matthew: Even the dead can be disturbed or displaced by a natural disaster.
A disinterred casket retrieved early Monday on Hilton Head Island was one of 10 discovered in Beaufort County since the Category 2 storm passed through the area Oct. 8 and 9, according to the Coroner’s Office.
The phenomenon of vaults being dislodged from their gravesites is rare but not unheard of during storms that bring heavy rain or floodwaters, Beaufort County Deputy Coroner David Ott said. Similar incidents occurred during Midlands flooding in October 2015.
Shallow, vault-style graves are most susceptible, Ott said. A storm of Matthew’s caliber has the potential to dislodge the top of the vault, and if enough water leaks inside, it can float the casket out of the gravesite.
Caskets floating out of gravesites is a relatively rare occurrence, except during extreme flooding and hurricanes.
Ott said late Monday morning a funeral home pulled a dislodged concrete vault from the marsh surrounding Jenkins Island Cemetery. The vault has since been returned to its interment site, Ott said.
Last week, three dislodged coffins were found floating in the Coosaw River in northern Beaufort County, at least one of which had to be retrieved by the S.C. National Guard. All three caskets were quickly identified and came from the Warsaw Cemetery, Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen said.
Allen said anyone who sees a displaced coffin can call the Coroner’s Office at 843-255-5150.
Gullah cemeteries susceptible
Both Warsaw Cemetery and Jenkins Island Cemetery are Gullah burial grounds.
Emory Campbell, a Gullah leader and Hilton Head Island native, said Gullah graves are particularly susceptible, as their cemeteries are typically near water. Even without a storm, erosion can be a problem. Wind, rain and storm surge — Hurricane Matthew entailed all three — make damage more likely.
“The belief among us Gullah people was that our spirit would move back to the homeland, which would be Africa, unobstructed across the water ... and so most of these cemeteries are adjacent to waterways, competing now with desired places for house lots,” Campbell said.
The Gullah cemeteries on Hilton Head Island — of which there are 18, according to the Heritage Library on Hilton Head Island — are currently maintained by various churches or by individuals, Campbell said.
The island has always been a group of residents who will volunteer to help others.
Emory Campbell, Gullah leader and Hilton Head native
“We have limited resources, but the (cleanup) effort is going to have to be made by us initially and other people,” Campbell said. “The island has always been a group of residents who will volunteer to help others. That tradition started with Gullah people and has been ongoing on Hilton Head Island, so we expect people to help.”
Campbell surveyed his parents’ tombstones at Spanish Wells Cemetery on Monday. An oak tree had fallen, splitting both of the headstones.
Nearby, residents on the upscale Oak Marsh Drive worked busily at repairing their homes.
“That’s the one thing that we witness in this particular hurricane as well as others — it has no discrimination,” Campbell said. “People — living or dead — cemeteries, or fine homes, they all are vulnerable to hurricanes.”
Conditions at Hilton Head Island cemeteries varied on Monday — some, like Spanish Wells Cemetery, were still in a state of wreckage, and in others, the cleanup effort has begun in earnest.
Talbird Cemetery, Hilton Head Plantation
Talbird Cemetery, just off the marshes of Skull Creek in Hilton Head Plantation, was still difficult to navigate as of Monday afternoon.
Fallen trees that split tombstones still had not been cut away. A concrete vault near Skull Creek had been lifted out of its interment site, flipped upside down and set back down at an odd angle.
Tressa Govan, who has several family members buried at Talbird, expressed sadness at the state of the burial grounds.
“It was kind of heartbreaking, not only because my family’s out there, but it’s also a historical gravesite,” she said. “I know many people are heartbroken that someplace that they buried their loved ones is destroyed in such a way due to the hurricane that came through.”
Spanish Wells Cemetery
At Spanish Wells Cemetery, off Oak Marsh Drive, uprooted trees littered the burial grounds, partially unearthing two vaults.
Little progress has been made in clearing the debris.
Union Cemetery was not hit as hard as either Talbird or Spanish Wells cemeteries, though in one spot, an uprooted tree pulled an entire tombstone out of the ground.
The tombstone of Alex Grant, a member of Company A of the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry, was held horizontally in the air, the engraved end tipped sideways and the bottom that was once anchored in the soil lifted out of the ground by the roots of the toppled tree.
The obelisk monument for John M. Smith, born in 1812, stood unscathed, however, surrounded by fallen trees that had barely missed the stone.
Cleanup had started at Pope Cemetery by Monday, with most of the trunks of downed trees chopped into pieces ready to be hauled away.
Some gravesites are still affected but not at as high a rate as other area graveyards.
Jenkins Island Cemetery
Graves at Jenkins Island Cemetery were largely spared from the hurricane’s wrath, though a few lay damaged Monday afternoon.
The lid on one vault, however, was slightly ajar, exposing an interior filled almost to the surface with water.