Ed Allen: I'm the voice for the dead
Sixty-eight small boxes are stacked in a closet at the Beaufort County Coroner's office. Each hold the remains of a person who lived and died in Beaufort County.
Their unclaimed bodies were cremated by the county. In some cases, no family could be found to claim the remains. In others, loved ones couldn't afford the $600 to $1,000 the county charges to claim the ashes.
Beaufort County coroner Ed Allen looks at the stack every time he opens his evidence closet -- a reminder of what he considers the immoral way the county's unclaimed dead are laid to rest. Stacked like a pile of office papers.
Allen has unsuccessfully pushed the county to follow the example of other S.C. counties and create a small paupers' cemetery to bury the ashes. Each would be buried under a humble marker.
"It's about principle," Allen said. "I think people can see leaving them in a closet is just not right."
But when he brought the proposal to a committee of Beaufort County Council in 2009, the idea of a paupers' cemetery was met with vocal opposition. One member implied that he should "feed them to the sharks," Allen said.
There is no one type of person who ends up on the coroner's shelf. The boxes hold ashes of the county's wealthy and the poor, the elderly and infants, the beloved and the forgotten.
Unclaimed remains tell a story:
A box marked "Baby boy Washington" holds remains of an infant left at a local hospital. His tiny hospital bracelet is taped to the front.
Another contains an immigrant from Honduras who died far from home.
Several are the remains of elderly people who watched their family and friends all pass away, with no one left to take care of them.
Their stories have been piling up in the closet for years. The oldest box is marked 1982.
Allen fears he will one day run out of room on the shelf. The coroner has an average of two to three unclaimed remains each year, but Beaufort County's population is growing. Many are transplants moving far away from family.
The issue is also personal for Allen. He was called to the scene of some of their deaths. He and his deputy, Janet Horton, investigated their lives to find someone to claim their remains. He interviewed neighbors and friends.
"When I see those boxes, I think of them as somebody's loved one. They might not have anybody right now, but they all had a family once," he said. "One day somebody might try to find the place where they're buried and there won't be anywhere."
Allen is ready to try again.
Working for the dead
Most people think the coroner only deals with the dead. But Allen, 66, spends just as much time working with the living.
Along with Horton, he phones the families of people who die unexpectedly, ushering them through the automatic machinery of legal decisions and paperwork.
When a body is unclaimed, Allen, a married father of three, is charged with tracking down a relative and, sometimes, persuading them to do what he sees as right.
He remembers a man who died while sailing off of Hilton Head Island seven years ago. It took some work, but Allen finally tracked down the man's son who was estranged from his father and hesitant to take his ashes.
"This is ironic that I'm being asked to do this for him when he hasn't done anything for me my whole life," Allen remembered the son saying.
In such cases, Allen's approach is frank. There is only one respectful thing to do, he tells them.
"Without parents, you wouldn't be here," he told the man. "This is something you can do to thank them for at least that basic fact. It's the compassionate thing to do."
And so the son took the ashes.
Allen has been working at the intersection of life and death his whole life.
As a teenager, he drove the hearse that served as the only ambulance for Beaufort's black families, run by what is today Marshel's Wright-Donaldson Home for Funerals.
He moved to Cincinnati as a young man to attend mortuary school and get his own start in the funeral trade.
Allen then returned home to Beaufort, working his way up the county government ranks, eventually serving as its deputy coroner and director of Emergency Medical Services for about 30 years.
He thought he was done with the business and retired in 2007 for three months. Then, he got a call from his mentor and predecessor Curt Copeland, who was ill and asked him to run for the coroner's job.
Allen's beard was already flecked with gray, but he said yes. Since 2009, he has been the one to take the county's calls about death. They come in on weekends, during the night, on holidays. And so he pulls on his green county polo shirt with "coroner" stitched in gold on the chest and goes to meet the dead.
There is a bond between people who speak for the deceased. On Allen's office wall hangs a black-and-white photo from the 1960s. In it, three men are lifting a body covered with a sheet out of a home. One of the men is Copeland.
It is Allen's way of paying homage to his dear friend. Never mind the corpse.
A national problem
Attitudes towards death have evolved since Allen's time as an ambulance driver.
Nationwide, coroners and medical examiners have reported a rise in the number of unclaimed remains. In big cities like Washington, D.C., the number of unclaimed has doubled since 2000.
Some speculate the spike may be the result of downturns in the economy, making funerals less affordable. Others say it's the result of less adherence to the long-held traditions of planning for death through family plots and detailed wills. All seem to agree that the fact that today's families are so mobile and often do not live in the same town has blurred the once clear lines of who is responsible for another's remains.
Governments at all levels are facing decisions about what to do to put their unclaimed dead to rest.
S.C. law leaves it up to the counties. The only stipulation is that the remains may not be cremated for at least 30 days.
Each county follows a different method. While a few still bury bodies, most cremate because it is cheaper, according to Dennis Fowler, president of the S.C. Coroner's Association.Fowler cautioned that some families will try to take advantage of counties if they know cremation services or burial is provided, giving people an incentive not to claim remains. He said each case has to be investigated to determine whether the family really can't afford it.
Counties that do offer burial services for the unclaimed or poor say they conduct background checks and search to see if there is an estate that could pay for cremation before someone qualifies.
Allen foresees using county-owned land for Beaufort County's paupers' cemetery, possibly acquired through the Rural and Critical Lands Program, which buys property for conservation purposes with proceeds from countywide bond referendums.
A modest service could be held. And the site would require minor county maintenance, such as mowing the grass, he added.
But the last time Allen made the proposal to county council, there was resistance.
A shelved discussion
In 2009, one year into Allen's first term as coroner, he brought the idea of a paupers' cemetery to the county's Public Safety Committee.
Then-council member Laura Von Harten was a vocal opponent of the idea, according to minutes from the committee discussion.
"Ms. Von Harten said just because it is someone's loved one, it does not mean the County has an obligation to memorialize that person," the minutes state. "(Von Harten) said her grandmother got lost at sea and she probably got eaten by a shark... and that she is probably in the molecules of some Cubans right now."
At some point other council members stepped in to put an end to the heated debate between Von Harten and Allen. Council member Bill McBride said that Von Harten's view did not reflect the beliefs of everyone present, but did not find the meeting the appropriate time to discuss the idea.
"Mr. Allen reiterated that at some point council needs to start thinking about it," the minutes state.
Allen told the council members "we have cremains that go back to the 1980s. If we do not bring it up, it will never be dealt with. It is my task to bring it to the forefront," the minutes read.
After that fight in committee, the idea of a paupers' cemetery was never brought again before the full County Council, said County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville last week.
When asked if he would support such an effort, Sommerville said, a request would have to be made to council before he could comment. Von Harten is no longer on the board.
County administrator Gary Kubic said he would support a renewed effort to establish a paupers' cemetery if Allen submits a request to County Council. While he did not know where a paupers' cemetery could be placed, he mentioned that other states, such as Ohio, have worked with charities and churches to establish places to bury remains.
"Most people don't think about this too much," Kubic said. But he believes it is a role for the public sector.
Allen hopes that the cemetery will give a place to visit if one day a relative or friend should seek out the remains now hidden on his office shelf. "If at some point the family member comes," he said. "We can say 'Yes, your loved one is here. Here they have a proper final resting place.'"
City editor Don McLoud contributed to this report. Follow reporter Erin Heffernan at twitter.com/erinheff.