Recently, a record breaking rainstorm dumped over twenty inches of rain over some parts of South Carolina, prompting some to call it the “1,000 year rain.” While the images coming out of South Carolina are shocking and the loss of life disheartening, the image that struck me the most was that of a cemetery outside of Orangeburg, South Carolina where coffins began to rise out of the ground and float away due to the heavy rains. The soil in this cemetery became so completely saturated that the pressure from the water pushed the coffins to the surface and some began to float away. Due to the water table sitting close to the surface and the tidal nature of many areas in South Carolina, it should be no surprise that these coffins could be disrupted by flood waters. In fact, a similar incident occurred in 1994, when over 400 caskets were disinterred in Albany, Georgia after a Tropical Storm came through the area, causing substantial flooding.
Due to the low lying nature of much of the state, South Carolina law only requires burial vaults to be ten inches below the surface. S.C. Code § 40-8-130(B)(1). Burial vaults include: “caskets, grave liners, or other outer burial containers.” Notably this statute does not apply to cemeteries in “costal and lowland areas which are subject to tidal or surface flooding or have a high-level water table, except that where the water table is two feet or less from the surface, cemeteries not subject to tidal or surface flooding may place vaults level with the ground.” S.C. Code § 40-8-130(B)(2).
Given that some burials have become disinterred as a result of this unprecedented flooding, South Carolina may need to reevaluate the burial requirements, particularly those in lowland areas susceptible to flooding. However, in those very same lowlands which present problems during flood times, the water table is incredibly close to the surface which presents a problem should state statute require deeper burials. South Carolina is facing a catch twenty-two: they can either require deeper burials to prevent disinterment due to flood waters in the future, despite the practical concerns with such a law in lowland areas; or they can ignore these extreme weather conditions and keep the burial law as it is but risk further disinterment in the future should such extreme weather arise again. Regardless, South Carolina should take steps to prevent such disinterment from happening in the future because in addition to the emotional toll it takes on the family members of the deceased, it is disturbing to the community to see caskets floating down their neighborhood streets.