Horry County filling up with 'unclaimed' remains

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Very few people know about or have ever seen the inside of the storage closet across the hall from the Horry County Coroner. What's inside may not surprise you: cleaners, body bags, latex gloves and other tools of the trade for his job.

However, also stored there are dozens of human remains that have gone unclaimed for up to 20 years.

"Probably in the run of an average year we'll have probably from 12 to 15 people that we have to take care of," Coroner Robert Edge says of the unclaimed remains taxpayers are responsible for.

It's part of every Coroner's job, just not one of the most publicized.

No fewer than 35 remains are now packed into a small storage closet just a few feet from Edge's office. Names, dates and other cataloging information are all that's left of these, so far, "unclaimed" bodies.

"I think it's our duty and our obligation to do that and not just kick them off to the side like some people would think you would do," Edge insists.

The county takes that obligation seriously and the tax-payers fund that obligation. The coroner's office has spent tens of thousands collecting, identifying, cremating and storing these remains, and thousands more searching for a relative to claim them.

Space for the remains, Edge will tell you, is running out.

The number of unclaimed bodies is growing so fast in Horry County that several years ago, the coroner asked councilors for a county cemetery to intern them. This year, Edge got that cemetery approved near the J. Reuben Long Detention Center. It certainly won't solve the problem, but it is more dignified than a storage closet.

Edge never dreamed he'd be asking the county for a special cemetery.

In the meantime, every effort is made to take both the storage and financial burden off tax-payers.

Edge can spend hours in a day making calls, checking the web and traveling the county in hopes of giving these ashes the dignity they deserve.

Then, sometimes others do the work for him.

This year, South Carolina passed a new law allowing veterans organizations the right to bury the remains of unclaimed soldiers without a family's permission. The state's first military veteran's service was held at the National Cemetery in Florence in July thanks to that new law, honoring an Horry County Vietnam veteran who died alone, with no one by his side.

Fellow vet and member of the local VFW, Larry Truax, has taken on the challenge of giving every unclaimed veteran the respect they deserve.

By Truax's estimates, the number of unclaimed veteran remains in South Carolina numbers in the thousands. Now that the legislature has eliminated the liability, the VFW plans to bury them all with honors.

"Oh, I feel blessed to be able to do this. I really do. it's an honor for me to be able to pay honor and respect for those brothers and sisters that fought before me and gone out before me, and to be able to give them the kind of burial that I'm going to receive," says Truax.

More than 100 attended the service for SSG, John Earl Reiser who died in Conway in 2009. He served in the United States Army for years, was honorably discharged then disappeared.

Now, three years after his death, his remains are finally leaving the coroner's closet and being buried in Florence.

Unfortunately, this will not be how most who end up on the shelves in Horry County will be interned. Most will remain just as they died, unwanted, invisible and "unclaimed."

The coroner says if all goes well, he could have a permanent cemetery for the "unclaimed" in Horry County by this time next year.

When asked if others in the building have ever complained about the idea of having so many remains stored in that closet, the coroner replied, like most people in Horry County, they don't know the remains are even there.

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