Long after hurricane hit NC, unearthed bodies remain unidentified
It was Father's Day when Larry Monk got the frantic call from his sister: Their father's burial vault was missing from its place in the cemetery.
Monk soon learned that wasn't all. It had been gone for nearly two years, and the family only learned about it when another sister went to put flowers on the grave.
The vault of Raymond Monk had been sucked out of the ground by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. The tobacco picker, who also worked at a processing plant, had been buried next to his wife in Elmwood Cemetery in Goldsboro after he died at age 85 in 1985. Now his body was in one of 18 unidentified burial vaults that were unearthed by the flooding. It went unclaimed for months while the Monk family had no idea there was a problem.
City officials say they did their best to find the families of the 18. But Larry Monk says their efforts didn't go far enough.
"I know he's gone," Monk said on a recent hot summer morning, tears running down his face as he stared at his parents' burial site. "But the idea is, we put him here, next to our mama. And to go through this again, it's bringing it all back."
Rick Fletcher, the city's director of public works, knows Monk is angry and hurting. "This happened almost two years ago, but to him, it happened a few weeks ago," Fletcher said.
Hurricane Matthew smacked into North Carolina on Oct. 9, 2016, but the Neuse River waited three days to peak at 29.74 feet in Goldsboro, about 10 feet above flood stage.
Elmwood Cemetery, located on low-lying ground about a half-mile from the river, didn't stand a chance against the rain and floods. Floodwaters of up to 6 feet (1.83 meters) inundated the 23-acre (9.3-hectare) graveyard, leaving only the tops of its gates exposed, Fletcher said.
The water moved 36 ground-level vaults from their burial sites. Eighteen were fairly easily matched with their proper gravesite because they either were partially contained within their vaults or they had identification written on paper stored in water-tight tubes, city officials said.
The remaining 18 either didn't have the tubes or the tubes were empty, Fletcher said.
Ground-level vaults, banned in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, aren't buried underground. Instead, they sit just below the surface with the vault's lid visible. Elmwood Cemetery dates back to 1874, when it was founded for African-Americans.
Fletcher and Timothy Irving, cemetery superintendent, are emphatic about one issue: The bodies were always handled with respect. None came out of a coffin, and they were quickly loaded into refrigerated trailers, Irving said.
Employees of a local funeral home volunteered to handle the remains, which were placed in new caskets and new vaults before being buried in a large plot, where they're identified with numbers and letters that correspond to DNA taken by the Office of the State Medical Examiner, Fletcher said.
A lab in Pennsylvania has tested that DNA and will match it with the DNA contributed by families. After that's done, the city plans to put a marker with the names of any unidentified remains at the gravesite.
Meanwhile, a question remains for Monk: Why the city couldn't find him or his siblings. Raymond and Lucy Monk had 11 children, eight of whom survive.
"My problem is they could have found us," Monk said. "No ifs, ands or buts about it."
Irving and another employee researched obituaries in the library to find survivors and located one relative that way. They also contacted funeral homes, but were unable to get anything useful.
Could the city have done anything else to find the families? In retrospect, Irving thinks so. For one thing, he says, they could have published the names.
On the other hand, "it seems like it might have been insensitive," especially in the chaos of the months immediately after the storm, he said. "I don't know."
Monk took a long look at the grave site that his father's new vault shares with 17 others near the front gates of Elmwood Cemetery.
"Hopefully, he's in there somewhere," he said. "We'll find him and put him back."
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