Coroner Ed Allen was on the phone discussing the disposition of a deceased veteran. With no family located to claim his body, he will be cremated after 30 days at the county's expense and his cremains stored at the Beaufort County Coroner's Office.
"We are currently tracing down his military record to see about getting him interred in Beaufort National Cemetery if he's eligible," said the coroner.
On a shelf in a small storeroom, 60 cardboard boxes labeled with names and dates are already stacked against the wall. These, too, are the cremains of individuals whose families have either not been located or have not stepped forward to claim their relative.
Allen, who has served as coroner for 12 years, said he inherited some from his predecessor, the late Curt Copeland. The others have come in under his tenure. Inside the boxes - each about the size of a shoe box - are the cremains of a stillborn baby, twin baby boys, several veterans, men and women, Allen said.
Those on the shelf remain for a variety of reasons, said the coroner. The most common reason is failure to find the next of kin. He uses the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office intelligence division, the Veterans Administration, the nationwide Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and other sources for identification.
"We've exhausted trying to find family members. Just this last week we were able to find a family member with the assistance of the sheriff's office and outside agencies. That family came forward and claimed their family member," said Allen. "Other times, we just keep going down a dead end road and don't make any contact. Or we may have friends of him who will say they had family or didn't have family. We just had a veteran that every time he went into the hospital, he checked himself in and did not give any personal contact."
"We had one case where we were able to track down the family member, but the husband forbade his wife from claiming her brother," Allen said. "We had another gentleman we held for two and a half months and were able to locate his son. He refused to claim his father. You'd be surprised at the things we come across here within the office."
There have been a few families that have come back to claim their relative and reimbursed the coroner's office for the expenditure the county made to cremate and hold the cremains.
With people moving all over the country and around the world, it is not surprising that family members lose touch with one another.
"Some of that contributes to family dynamics, and people lose out on staying in touch," said Allen.
"Another gentleman lived on a boat on Hilton Head and died. We were able to track down and find his son. Through his parents' divorce, the son had lost touch with his father and his mother had died," he said. "He regretted losing touch and was glad to finally find out what happened to his father. He had a son and I told him this was something to keep in mind, to remember this: keep in touch with your family, and don't make your son go through the same thing."
Some individuals have not been claimed, such as the stillborn baby or the twin boys. The family didn't have the funds to bury them. Others, such as a veteran who had no living relatives, will be buried at Beaufort National Cemetery. Allen notifies local veterans' organizations, whose members frequently attend the scheduled services.
"Virtually every county regardless of its size will experience this. Richland County does have a county cemetery where they inter claimed bodies a couple of times a year up in Columbia. They also handle the remains of those who donated their bodies to medical schools," he said. "Jasper has a pauper's cemetery. We do not have one here in Beaufort and I have been trying to get one here."
Others remain on the shelf despite the desire of friends to give the individual a proper burial.
A homeless gentleman died and although an immediate family member was located, they did not claim him, Allen said. He was known to people on Hilton Head Island as a friendly itinerant handyman and mechanic. When his acquaintances learned he was not claimed by his family, they offered to pay to bury him, but by law they were not allowed.
"These cremains can only be released to the next of kin," said Allen.
Allen said culture has a lot to do with if an individual's cremains are claimed.
"Historically when we look at Hispanics and blacks, those families will rally together to come up with the funds to help families who have nothing. Often the funeral homes will try to help, also," the coroner said. "Then they will have a going home ceremony. The Hispanic communities will also help send the deceased back home for burial."
They might have died in Beaufort County but the individuals on the coroner's shelf came from other places.
"There's no telling where their home was." When the address of an immediate family member is found, the coroner's office gets in touch with that jurisdiction's law enforcement or coroner to make contact with the family in the hope that the family will claim their relative and give them a proper burial.
"That is the last thing you can do for your loved ones," Allen said.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.