HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — All the family knew was that the grave was by a tree.
When Lou Conklin went out with a mother and daughter trying to find their family member’s resting place, they didn’t know exactly where to look. Finally, after spotting a pair of tree stumps, they ended up finding a brick marking the site.
When it comes to finding once-lost cemeteries, it’s often small, easily-overlooked markers that reveal where graves are.
“During the Depression, people couldn’t mark their graves, so they used car parts, they used tractor parts,” said Conklin, senior planner with Horry County Zoning and Planning. “They could have used an axle to a car.”
Other times, wooden headstones have deteriorated, or a site was marked with seashells. Stone markers can also sink deep into the ground due to flooding.
The Horry County Cemetery Project started in 2007 with a goal of preserving and documenting the county’s historic cemeteries in an effort to protect the sites. It also marks previously-unmarked graves, and provides an online map of cemeteries.
The map can be searched by cemetery name, the name of the deceased or by address.
When a cemetery is discovered, volunteers will visit the site with iPads to survey the area and take pictures of the headstones. They’ll manually enter in the names from headstones and any dates, which are then uploaded to the online map.
The volunteers might also use ground-penetrating radar to find graves.
While it’s not against state law to create a family cemetery on private property — where many of the undocumented cemeteries are located — Conklin doesn’t recommend it due to the risk of the sites potentially being destroyed.
“What is bad about that is they probably aren’t going to own the property forever, and then we don’t know the cemetery is there,” she said.
Those cemeteries might not be disclosed to zoning and planning, which could lead to their unintentional destruction.
“That is how sometimes cemeteries disappear,” Conklin said. “We have places in Horry County where cemeteries have been destroyed.”
If that happens, only some stones might be left to mark the sites.
Historic cemeteries are commonly found in Horry County, with Conklin documenting four previously unknown ones in 2019.
“There are still cemeteries out there, for sure,” she said.
Conklin will sometimes find out about a cemetery after someone stumbles over one. Other times, she’ll get a call when someone knows the general location of one, but not how to get there. She said the county has learned about some cemeteries after people in a neighborhood call her to say that houses were going to be built near one.
Conklin said one developer called to ask if a cemetery could be marked so it wasn’t distrubed.
At other times, Conklin has had to tell people they can’t build a driveway that runs along headstones.
Cemeteries are given extra layers of protection under state law, which requires people seeking a building permit to present a plan for preserving the sites.