CHARLESTON, S.C. - The operators of a South Carolina cemetery have come under fire after one worker reportedly said that “God is responsible” for repairing several graves exposed by recent record-breaking rainfall.
The damaged graves, which included opened grave vaults and at least 10 exposed caskets, were discovered Sunday at Monrovia Union Cemetery in downtown Charleston, according to WCSC. The news station reported Monday that South Carolina law requires cemetery officials to report exposed graves to the coroner of the county where the graveyard is located.
Monrovia officials had not done so at that time.
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WCSC reporter Brooke Griffin called the cemetery office, where a man who would not give his name told her the rain was an act of God, so “God is responsible” for fixing the damage, Griffin said.
“‘These families that are upset shouldn’t even care. The people they have in here are dead, they don’t have a voice, why does it matter if they have water in the grave?’ That’s what the man said when I called the Monrovia Cemetery contact number today,” Griffin wrote on Twitter.
“These families that are upset shouldn’t even care. The people they have in here are dead, they don’t have a voice, why does it matter if they have water in the grave.”— Brooke Live 5 News (@brookegriff_tv) December 17, 2018
That’s what the man said when I called the Monrovia Cemetery contact number today. Hear the full story at 5/6 pic.twitter.com/bzUy8jXZ7r
Family members of those laid to rest in the cemetery were aghast to discover the damage.
“This is horrible, coming to see your family underwater and (the) casket lifted up over the grave like this,” Rosa Mais told WCSC.
Jamaria Myers told the news station she wants to move her loved one from the cemetery.
“I asked if I can,” Myers said. “They said, ‘You would disturb her peace,’ but technically, she’s already out of the ground.”
Faith Doster told ABC News 4 in Mount Pleasant that she suspected her father’s grave was one of those disturbed by the flooding when she saw photos and thought she recognized his casket.
“I went home and put on my boots and came back out, walked over there and sure enough, it’s him,” Doster told the station. “He’s literally up out the ground. I can actually see his casket, he’s not in the tomb anymore.”
Robin Marion told The Washington Post that she went Tuesday to the historically African-American cemetery, where she found distraught relatives trying to clean up their loved ones’ graves. Some visitors could not even find the graves they were looking for.
“A lot of people were crying,” said Marion, who has a grandmother, great-grandmother and multiple cousins buried at Monrovia. “A young lady was a little distraught, standing on top of her mother’s vault, trying to put pressure on it to get it back down.
“It’s just sad. This is a disaster.”
South Carolina Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who represents Charleston, told the Post he also went to the cemetery Tuesday after receiving multiple calls about the issue, but found the gates locked.
“When I got out there, the first thing I was taken by was the fact that people were actually jumping over the fence to check (on their loved ones' graves) because somebody had actually put a lock on the entrance,” Gilliard told the newspaper. “I found that to be upsetting, so I got on the phone and I asked them to kindly remove the locks.”
Today the gate to Monrovia cemetery was locked after @Live5News broke the story about graves that were propped open by flooding rains. The Gullah Society did an inspection while people care out to check on their loved ones graves. #chsnews pic.twitter.com/kaVFnX3KV9— Harve Jacobs (@policereporter) December 18, 2018
Update: the gates to Monrovia cemetery have been opened. State Rep. Wendell Gilliard and a representative from DHEC are meeting with people whose loved ones are buried here. #chsnews pic.twitter.com/7AIXlA1Gx6— Harve Jacobs (@policereporter) December 18, 2018
A groundskeeper did so about 30 minutes later, at which point Gilliard joined distraught family members on the grounds. Again, he was taken aback.
“People were actually on top of graves crying and kneeling. You had to see it to believe it,” Gilliard said.
Several people, including Gilliard, have tried to get a meaningful response from the Monrovia Union Cemetery Association, the nonprofit board that The Post and Courier in Charleston reported owns the cemetery. The board member who serves as its agent, Bryan McNeal, had stopped taking calls about the cemetery flooding.
The Washington Post reported that when a reporter called McNeal’s office Wednesday, a woman answered the phone, but a man’s voice could be heard in the background, saying, “Tell her the situation is not as bad as the media is making it.”
The woman relayed that message and added that the flooding was “nothing that the cemetery did.”
“We’ve been there, too, and we’ve seen it,” the woman, who did not give her name, told the reporter, according to the Post. “We don’t know who you spoke to. It was handled in only the way it can be handled. We’re working on trying to fix the problem.”
The Post and Courier reported that groundskeepers at the cemetery installed pumps on Wednesday to clear water from the largest area of flooding. ABC News 4 reported that a cemetery spokesperson told one of its reporters that workers will do whatever they can to correct the problem once the water recedes.
A spokesperson for Monrovia Cemetery told me nothing immediate can be done, they're waiting on the water to recede before crews/equipment can get in there and added it's the first time its flooded this bad, they'll do whatever possible to correct the issue @ABCNews4 #chsnews pic.twitter.com/W5qK5c8aHf— Caroline Balchunas (@carolinebTV) December 17, 2018
A more permanent solution will not be easy, the newspaper said. The cemetery is in a low-lying area alongside a drainage creek that feeds into the Ashley River. Heavy rains that flood the Ashley cause drainage water to rise throughout the area, including in the cemetery.
There is also little the state can do to force the issue, since Monrovia Union Cemetery is not a perpetual care cemetery, both the Post and the Post and Courier reported. Because it is a private cemetery and does not receive caretaking funds from the families of the people buried in the more than 1,000 graves located there, the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation does not license the site.
The state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control also has no jurisdiction in the matter because the exposed graves do not pose a health risk, the Post and Courier said.
Gilliard told the newspaper he questions what the next step should be.
“It’s just disgusting what I saw here today,” the lawmaker said Tuesday. “It’s disgusting to the families, embarrassing to the city of Charleston and the state.
“One of these agencies is going to have to come through for the people here. That’s the bottom line.”
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