Car headlights cast shadows on mourners as the Rev. Ben Williams was buried in Talbird Cemetery.
That’s how long the funeral had lasted for Hilton Head Island’s beloved “Rev” on that warm Saturday afternoon.
Williams had been pastor for more than 40 years at the nearby Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, keepers of the old Gullah cemetery in Hilton Head Plantation, where black Civil War veterans rest in the shade of a modern condominium.
As the sun slipped below the marsh and the timeless Skull Creek beyond, some said it was a miracle anyone could be buried there on Nov. 19.
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In the wee hours of Oct. 8, Hurricane Matthew had buried the cemetery beneath a layer of dead marsh grass and dense piles of fallen oaks that had stood 50 feet high.
The storm surge sucked up a burial vault and flipped it upside down. Category 2 winds yanked up root balls 8 feet in diameter.
I worried that Hilton Head’s adrenaline of digging out from under tens of thousands of trees would blow away before we took care of these sacred grounds standing in the need of prayer.
On the last day Ben Williams went anywhere on this earth — a day he was driven to a doctor’s appointment and then to the hospital, where he died two weeks later — he asked the driver to take him by Talbird.
“He just wanted to see it,” recalls Mt. Calvary church administrator Gloria Murray. “He was restless that it was not what it needed to be. He said, ‘Sister Murray, you need to stay up on that.’ ”
What happened next is what the players call acts of God.
Help from afar
“Hey, I’m just a piano player.”
That’s what Steve White — keyboardist for The Headliners band and Island Lutheran Church on Main Street — was thinking when his pastor drove him around the island after the hurricane. They saw a need for help in yard after yard, and the Rev. Larry Eckart asked White to lead the church’s charge.
They put together a chainsaw gang, and the older members opened their wallets, and they helped clear yards. But something else was on Eckart’s heart.
In his six years here, he has frequented the island’s Gullah cemeteries. His Midwestern eyes saw them as special places that often get overlooked in telling the history of Hilton Head.
He said he wanted to restore the Elliott Cemetery, which was hit so hard you couldn’t get to it, because Alexandria Patterson, a founder of his church, is buried there.
But the Rev. Ed Brashier suggested they do Talbird first because it was accessible and more work could get done quicker.
Brashier is a Lutheran associate pastor in Birmingham who was a power company lineman in his previous life. He heads volunteers who chainsaw in the name of Christ wherever they are called. It’s called Shepherd’s Heart Disaster Response Ministry, working through the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s Lutheran Church Charities.
Volunteers came from Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina — some driving 1,000 miles to get here and some coming down more than once. They sawed and hauled with two John Deere tractors and a Bobcat, and a mountain of debris was lifted from Talbird in a matter of days.
None of them knew anything about the Rev’s illness, or his pending death — and his ultimate need to be buried in peace.
“That’s a God thing,” Brashier said later.
On the morning of the Rev’s funeral, I could not believe my eyes when I visited Talbird. It was swept clean.
A few workers clung to pickup truck doors. In the distance, a lone figure was still cleaning burial plots with a leaf blower.
It was Charlie Sinatra, a retired doctor who lives in a Grandview condo next door. For eight years, he has been the self-appointed caretaker at Talbird. He even started going to the Rev’s church, and volunteering in its preschool.
He showed me the crosses carved in oak trunks by volunteers after they finished a job that would have cost the small church $50,000 to $70,000. He showed me the poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” that had been nailed to a palmetto tree before the storm and was found beneath a pile of Spanish moss and nailed to one of the crosses.
Sinatra told me about Ned Allen, who lives nearby at The Cypress. Allen had heard about the cemetery needing help and came to see.
Allen contracted a commercial team to finish the job of hauling out massive root balls and regrading the damaged earth. Allen and his wife, Suzie, are veteran philanthropists. He set up the Talbird Cemetery Fund at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to take donations but personally guaranteed the cost so workers could get busy.
Allen said Reagan Site Work and Construction of Augusta, Ga., was in town with heavy equipment and was between engagements. It agreed to finish Talbird Cemetery at cost, and at double-time because by now they knew that the Rev needed a resting place that Saturday.
On Thursday, Hilton Head Plantation POA director Peter Kristian was contacted and the giant, double-tandem trucks hauling debris for the town and FEMA came in to clear all but the heaviest cemetery debris so the hearse and mourners could get in.
Allen said people have responded so far with $30,000, which will help him make the contractor whole and potentially lead to a more solid financial footing for the island’s dozen or so Gullah cemeteries, each in the hands of a small, local church.
‘You don’t stand alone’
Sinatra said the main job now is to restore damaged tombstones in Talbird. He’s no longer able to wrestle with them personally.
The Lutherans and many others are working to restore other island Gullah cemeteries, including Elliott.
The Gullah community is hosting a Lowcountry cookout from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday at Jarvis Creek Park for the volunteers who helped do a job that could never have been done alone.
Gloria Murray of the Mount Calvary church said, “It just kind of overwhelmed us how generous people from all over the country have been. The Rev. Williams believed this was a beloved community and he brought us together. You don’t stand alone. You really don’t.”
Island Lutheran pastor Larry Eckart uses the mysterious choreography at Talbird Cemetery as a lesson to his flock.
“Can I get a witness that God knows what He is doing?” he asked them.
“We thought we were simply cleaning up a cemetery. God was working ahead so that this congregation, indeed the African-American community in the area, could bury their noted pastor with dignity.”
The Talbird Cemetery Fund was set up at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to help pay for cemetery restoration after Hurricane Matthew.
Donations may be made through the foundation website. Hit the “Donate Now” link and select the Talbird Cemetery Fund from the pulldown menu. Also, checks made out to the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry with “Talbird Cemetery Fund” written in the memo line may be sent to the foundation, P.O. Box 23019, Hilton Head Island, SC 29925.