By Thomas Goldsmith

Hurricane-driven floods have again lifted the dead from their burial places in Goldsboro’s Elmwood Cemetery.

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Wednesday’s discovery of two disinterred caskets — one pink — again marred the cemetery’s peace, even though it didn’t approach the 36 graves found empty after Hurricane Matthew overflowed the nearby Neuse River in 2016.

The count was likely lower because city employees worked in advance to place 1,200 sandbags on top of about 200 “surface vaults” that are particularly prone to displacement, said Timothy Irving, cemetery director in Goldsboro’s public works department.

“It wasn’t as deep as Matthew,” Irving said Thursday. “But the cemetery except the highest peak was under water.

Shows a cemetery gate that's about 8' tall before reaching the finials.
At the height of the flooding following Hurricane Matthew, water reached the top of the gate posts, leaving only the round finials visible. Flooding created by Hurricane Florence has been only a foot shy of that inundation. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Once the cemetery dries, I’ll go in and there should be two holes. I can tell you the name of the two people then.”

As in the previous disinterments, city administrators will face the issue of returning vaults to their customary plots. Sixteen of those disturbed by Matthew have not yet been moved back to their plots pending ongoing DNA analysis. Replacing the two unearthed this week will have to wait until the Neuse River waters recede.

“Hopefully with only two caskets being disinterred we’ll be able to contact family more easily,” Irving said. “It’s hard to have to talk to families and try to explain this to them. They can’t help but be concerned about their loved ones.

“One is a pink casket, so it looks like a lady is buried there.”

Goldsboro Fire Department workers put out in a boat at about 2 p.m. Wednesday to retrieve the pair of floating caskets, said city spokesman LaToya Henry. They used special equipment and protective gear.

The Neuse crested at 26.7 feet Tuesday, compared to a median depth of 4.14 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The record during 23 years at the Goldsboro gauge is 28.78 feet, measured in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd, which dislodged hundreds of caskets.

As NC Health News reported in 2016, the problem was mentioned by the General Assembly in a $200 million post-Matthew recovery funding law passed in special session. “Caskets floated out of the saturated ground,” the law says in item 10 of Section 2.1.(b).

All the displacements at Elmwood have involved surface burial vaults that were buried near ground level. This once-common practice was outlawed by the General Assembly after Hurricane Floyd.

Damaged trees and other debris fell during Florence at the city’s other cemetery, Willowdale, originally for white citizens, but no graves were disturbed. Elmwood was designated a cemetery for African-Americans in the 19th century, but, Irving said, that difference isn’t at the heart of this week’s disruption.

“That has nothing to do with race, or black or white,” he said. “We just happened to be near the Neuse River.”

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...