Stephanie Kaiser was riding in a car in Columbia when her water broke.
Only 20 weeks pregnant, she was rushed to the hospital, where doctors attempted to delay labor for a week and a half.
On March 7, Kaiser’s body gave out, and Havyn Grace Kaiser was born.
The infant girl, who had struggled so much to enter this world, drew her last breath just 30 minutes later.
The baby was laid to rest on Oct. 29, along with 34 others in a Richland County cemetery. The land is set aside for those in the county who go unclaimed or whose families can’t afford a burial.
A few times each year, the Richland County Coroner’s Office holds a funeral service there and buries new remains.
“It’s not right, in my opinion, to just dig a hole or leave them on a shelf,” said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, whose office handles about 60 to 100 unclaimed cases each year. “Morally, it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s 9 a.m. as Bill Stevens turns a black Chevy Tahoe onto a narrow gravel drive that ascends a hill past a thick stand of trees.
The Richland County deputy coroner is the first to arrive at the bluff overlooking an industrial section of metal buildings off Old Clemson Road. A mobile home park backs up to the plot, which has been used for paupers’ burials since the 1960s.
Today, Stevens and others from his office will help lay 35 residents to rest.
Stevens parks the Tahoe by the chain-link gate and removes white cardboard boxes the size of toasters. He places the boxes beside lines of holes that are just large enough for the boxes. Each hole has a small mound of red dirt behind it.
Then he brings out the metal markers to place at each grave. The rust-colored markers are about three inches high. They bear the names of the dead, their birth year and year of death. A long metal stake at the bottom will hold each marker in place.
The simple boxes and markers don’t begin to tell the stories of the dead.
One box contains the remains of a woman who overdosed on heroin. Another contains a man accused of murder who died in a shoot-out with police. A third contains a murder victim.
But most didn’t have such dramatic endings. They died alone, forgotten or shunned. Of the 35, only about five are represented by family or friends at the service.
“Each is a different, unique story,” said Stevens, who is in charge of tracking down people who knew the unclaimed. Some of those stories take months to find.
Kaiser is among the mourners. She arrives with a friend to say goodbye to her infant daughter Havyn. At 10 a.m., she and the group of about 20 mourners slowly proceed past the cemetery gates and stand before the rows of tiny graves.
It is the first time Kaiser has been with her daughter’s remains since Havyn was born in March.
The Richland County Coroner’s Office contacted her soon after her daughter’s death, letting her know the remains would be in its care. Kaiser had been too distraught to handle the arrangements, leaving the hospital 12 hours after giving birth.
“I just couldn’t stand to be there,” Kaiser said.
Dressed in a tan suit with a Bible in his hand, Tim Phillips, associate pastor of Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Columbia, begins the service with words of comfort.
“We come to express our gratitude to God for the gift of life,” he said. “And we come to express our sadness at the loss of our loved ones.”
He leads the mourners with heads bowed in prayer.
He asks their forgiveness if he mispronounces the names of the deceased.
“Every single one of these individuals is precious in the sight of God,” he said.
Slowly, he reads the names one-by-one.
“Havyn G. Kaiser,” he said.
Stephanie Kaiser dabs her eyes with a tissue.
After about 5 minutes, the service nears its end.
“Earth to Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Phillips said.
Stevens and another deputy coroner take up their shovels and begin filling the holes containing the white boxes. The cardboard will disintegrate over time, leaving a green plastic urn holding the cremated remains. If family or friends should later decide to claim the remains, the urns can be exhumed and handed over after they pay the cost of cremation, which is roughly $1,000.
The mourners branch off into groups. Some snap photos of the tiny grave markers.
One family holds its own ceremony, reading poems and singing songs for Nancy Mantovani, who died this year.
“Mama is looking down and is proud,” daughter Amber Mantovani tells the small gathering of relatives and friends.
A social worker is there to pay respects to one of her former clients.
“He was a rolling stone, but a delightful person,” she said. He had spent time in jail but had turned his life around. He died of complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, she said. “I’m short of breath” were his last words.
A woman kisses the tips of her fingers and bends to place them on the marker of Sandra Henderson, who died Sept. 15 at age 59 of liver cancer.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” she said. “I’m going to miss you.”
Henderson’s daughter Shanay McFadden said the family couldn’t afford a burial, so hospice contacted the coroner’s office on their behalf.
“It means a lot for me to come here, a burial place for my mother,” she said. “To speak with her if I please.”
A precious memory
On the way out of the hospital after Havyn died, Kaiser, in a heartbroken daze, stopped at the gift shop and bought a ring in her daughter’s memory.
About two weeks later, she and her husband split up, and she moved to Raleigh, N.C., to be closer to her family.
“It’s been a roller-coaster year,” said the 27-year-old Kaiser.
She holds out her hand to show the ring she bought at the gift shop.
“I replaced that with my wedding ring,” she said. “So I’m married to my daughter.”
As the morning sun streamed down on the markers for Havyn and the others buried, Kaiser was ready to say goodbye to her firstborn.
“She only lived for 30 minutes,” Kaiser said. “It was just precious for me to be able to be out here and have her acknowledged as a person and that she was here for a short amount of time.”
Unclaimed remains elsewhere
While no exact count exists, many S.C. counties cremate and bury the remains of the unclaimed, according to the S.C. Coroner's Association.
- Neighboring Jasper County has a paupers' cemetery, but it is rarely used these days, said Coroner Martin Sauls. Instead Sauls, who owns Sauls Funeral Home, has personally taken on the cost of cremating remains at his Bluffton funeral home and has a crypt where unclaimed remains are held. Should a family come forward to claim the remains, he can go to the crypt to remove them. A minister comes in to say a prayer whenever new remains are placed, he said. "I feel a lot better about myself. It really is not a problem for me to do," Sauls said. "If I can help, then I want to."
- The Aiken County Coroner's Office holds a mass burial each year. Businesses and residents make donations to cover all of the costs. This year it buried six cremated remains, and in 2014, the remains of eight were buried.
- The Horry County Coroner's Office is working on a plan to use part of the city of Conway's cemetery for burial of cremated remains, said county coroner Robert Edge. His office handles about a dozen unclaimed remains each year.
- Charleston County has property set aside for burying unclaimed remains that are cremated by the county, according to coroner Rae Wooten.
- Florence County cremates and buries remains. They are buried on county-owned land, said Coroner Keith von Lutcken. He has about two unclaimed cases a year.
- Unclaimed remains of veterans receive special treatment. State law was amended in 2012 to allow veterans groups to bury remains at least 120 days after cremation and not be held liable should a relative later sue. Several such ceremonies have been held in Beaufort National Cemetery since the law was changed. Larry Truax, who helped to get the law amended, volunteers with the Missing in America Project in South Carolina. He calls on coroner's offices or they contact him whenever veterans' remains go unclaimed. After verifying they are veterans, he schedules services with full military honors at national cemeteries. "This is what they deserve," he said. "They don't deserve to be sitting on a shelf."
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