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SC coroner's office conducts burials for those without family

In life, Wayne Cook, Sharon Ward and Jacquelyn Hall shared no friendship or family ties.

In death, their remains rest side by side in the Richland County Cemetery, forever linked by lives controlled by addictions that left them estranged from family or with no money for a funeral.

On Wednesday, they were buried in the public cemetery with seven other people during a 30-minute ceremony led by a Baptist minister.

Jean Westmoreland, Sue Dockery and Jody Dockery arrived early to place three photographs in a white box containing Cook's ashes. The three cared for Cook during his final years, patiently dealing with his drinking binges and growing to love his sense of humor and storytelling.

They held no family obligations. Westmoreland had met Cook more than 20 years ago when he was a student at Midlands Tech. Sue Dockery was his home health aide, and her husband, Jody Dockery, sometimes visited Cook just so the two could have "man talk."

"In the Christian faith, we're taught to look after people," Westmoreland said. "It's what I felt I was supposed to do. We followed through with this. It was important for him to receive the dignity of a funeral that any other person would have."

The county always has buried its residents whose families could not or would not pay for a funeral. But Coroner Gary Watts started holding formal burial ceremonies when he took office in 2001.

Cook's story is all too familiar to Watts. The people he has buried over the years often have had extensive criminal backgrounds and addictions. Many are homeless. Few have family attend the service. More often, it's caregivers such as Westmoreland and the Dockerys who come to say goodbye.

"It's my responsibility to take care of these people in death," Watts said. "They may not have been taken care of in life. They may have had a rough life. But the final act will show some compassion, regardless of where they came from."

Over the years, the number of people buried in the county cemetery has increased. In part, it's a result of a growing population, Watts said. But the rising number also has been attributed to a bad economy. There are more homeless people and more families with already-stretched-thin finances who can't afford to bury a relative they barely knew.

Occasionally, the deceased is someone like Flossie Jackson, who at 92 had outlived every one else in her family. She died in a local nursing home in July and was buried Wednesday, said Deputy Coroner Bill Stevens, who tracks down relatives of the dead. No one came to pay respects to her.

The coroner's office holds two or three funerals per year, depending on how many bodies need to be buried. In 2010, the county buried 25 people at the cemetery; 21 were buried in 2011. Recently, the coroner's office arranged with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to have those who are military veterans buried at Fort Jackson National Cemetery, Watts said.

When people with no known relatives dies, their bodies are stored at the Richland County morgue while Stevens searches for family. After 30 days, the bodies become property of the county.

"Their stories are very sad," Watts said. "You've got fathers who haven't spoken to their sons and daughters in 20 years. They'll say they don't want anything to do with him."

The secluded county cemetery rests on a hill between a manufacturing plant and a mobile home park in the Northeast. Metal plaques mark the graves of hundreds of people who have been buried at the public's expense since the 1960s, when the county opened it.

Fred Martin, 82, sat on a walker transport chair outside the cemetery's fence during the ceremony. Too sick to walk to the gravesite, Martin wanted to bid farewell to Ward, his housemate for the past 10 years.

Ward, who was homeless and hadn't spoken to her family in 30 years, moved into Martin's home a year after Martin's wife died. Despite her heavy drinking and drug use, she helped fill the lonely days, Martin said. Ward, 65, died in July of a suspected overdose, he said.

Ward wanted to be cremated but did not want to be buried, Martin said as a tear rolled down his cheek.

"I've been in and out of the hospital, and I couldn't do it," he said. "She begged me not to do this. She didn't want to be in the ground."

Tim Phillips, associate pastor of Riverland Hills Baptist Church, volunteers to lead each service.

On Wednesday, he referred to comforting Bible scriptures such as Psalm 23 and the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus promised to prepare room in heaven.

"As we come together for this sacred moment, we are reminded that every life is sacred and precious," Phillips said during a prayer.

Phillips read the names of each person buried and then closed with: "Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. May the Lord lift up his countenance on them and give them peace."

As the service closed, LaShaun Benjamin's sobs mixed with the sound of a shovel scraping dirt into the graves.

Her mother, Hall, died in January from unknown causes. Hall spent her entire adult life struggling with addictions to crack, heroin and alcohol, Benjamin said. Her mother did not have insurance, and Hall, a residential counselor for special needs children, did not have the means to pay for a funeral. She signed her mother's remains over to the county.

"She was loved by everybody, but she had a hard time in her day-to-day life with addiction," Benjamin said. "We struggled for years to get her clean and in and out of rehab. It was a hard battle for her. This means a lot. It gives us closure and a sense of peace."