This article is part of “Lost Rites,” a series on America’s failed death notification system.
RAYMOND, Miss. — Gretchen Hankins came to the Hinds County pauper’s field Friday morning for her son’s body, and for answers. She got neither.
Hankins’ son, Jonathan David Hankins, 39, died of a drug overdose in May 2022, and his body went unclaimed for more than a year as family, friends and police searched for him. Without anyone notifying his mother of his death, he was buried in a grave marked only with a number: 645. He was one of several men who were buried without their families being told, triggering widespread public outrage after NBC News exposed the issue last year.
Early Friday, Gretchen Hankins stepped onto the pauper’s field, on the grounds of the county jail’s work farm, for the first time, to witness her son being exhumed so that his body could be prepared for a proper funeral. She said a staff member at the Hinds County coroner’s office had told her she could attend the exhumation.
Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart was there as well, and Hankins began pressing the coroner on why no one had told her her son was dead.
As Hankins’ sister recorded on a phone, Grisham-Stewart said the lapse was not her fault.
“I don’t know about missing persons,” said Grisham-Stewart, who has held the elected office of Hinds County coroner since 1999. “I don’t know how to find people. I know how to determine cause and manner of death. But if I fall short of looking for people, I apologize. I don’t know how to find people.”
“But it’s your job,” Hankins replied, “and when you take that job on, you’re supposed to learn how to do that.”
Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for the state medical examiner, said county coroners are required to take a 40-hour training course every four years that includes instruction on locating and communicating with next of kin.
Although each county has its own procedures, Martin said that “the ultimate responsibility for death notification lies with the county coroner.”
Shortly after Hankins criticized Grisham-Stewart for not notifying her of her son’s death, Grisham-Stewart told her that she could not be there. A Hinds County sheriff’s deputy ordered Hankins, her sister, friends, a reporter and a photographer away from the cemetery.
Grisham-Stewart did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department said members of the public must request access to the pauper’s cemetery because it’s on the jail property.
This was the first time Hankins had met Grisham-Stewart since she learned about the death of her son, Jonathan David Hankins, in December, when an NBC News reporter came to her doorstep to share the news as part of an investigation into failed death notifications in Hinds County.
Documents obtained by NBC News showed that Grisham-Stewart’s office identified Jonathan Hankins’ body a few days after police found him dead in a Jackson motel room, but no one contacted his mother, even though she’d reported him missing to authorities in neighboring Rankin County and Jonathan’s name was posted to a publicly available federal database of missing people.
A Google search of Jonathan Hankins’ name by Grisham-Stewart’s office would have delivered information about his family and their attempts to find him.
After finally learning of her son’s death from NBC News in December, Hankins said she paid the county $300 to reclaim the rights to his body and exhume his remains.
“I’m the one, the mother, you did not contact when my son was buried,” Hankins told Grisham-Stewart after arriving at the pauper’s field Friday morning, according to the recording provided to NBC News.
“Sometimes we don’t know how to contact the families,” Grisham-Stewart responded.
Grisham-Stewart, who spent nearly two decades as a mortician before being elected Hinds County coroner, has not spoken publicly about the botched notifications. Prior to the scandal, she told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in 2022 that the number of unclaimed bodies handled by her office had risen sharply over the past two decades — a trend repeated in large and midsize cities across the country in an era rife with opioid addiction, surging homelessness and increasingly fractured families.
In 2003, Hinds County sent 11 unclaimed bodies to pauper’s burials; in 2022, that number had grown to about 40.
Amid a rise in homicides and deaths due to Covid, Grisham-Stewart told The Clarion-Ledger that she “went to bed every night praying there wouldn’t be a homicide or car wreck.”
Revelations of the botched death notifications stirred nationwide anger and prompted calls for federal investigations. The Jackson Police Department in Mississippi adopted its first policy on death notifications in November. The coroner’s office has since released a copy of its own policy, but it isn’t clear when it went into effect.
In the Hankins case, the coroner’s office has not said what, if anything, it did to find or contact his family. The agency said it forwarded Jonathan Hankins’ information to the Jackson Police Department for notification purposes, but the police department has said it never got that information.
At the gravesite, Grisham-Stewart told Gretchen Hankins that her office staff was trained by the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office but that training did not focus on finding people.
“But it wasn’t that hard,” Gretchen Hankins told Grisham-Stewart. “All you had to do is the computer.”
“Well, it is hard when you have deaths after deaths after deaths after death and you work 24 hours a day,” Grisham-Stewart said. “And, you know, having a computer is at a desk. My job is out in the field.”
“It’s still not excusing,” Hankins said. “If you take on a job, you’re supposed to do it.”
“I don’t make an excuse,” Grisham-Stewart said.
Grisham-Stewart told Hankins that in cases when her staff can’t find families, “we’re always hopeful that families can find us.”
But Hinds County — like most coroners nationally — does not post the names of unclaimed dead to a free searchable database maintained by the Department of Justice. In December, NBC News published the names of 215 people buried in the Hinds County pauper’s cemetery since 2016 to give families an opportunity to find loved ones.
Grisham-Stewart told Hankins that she was “trying to implement things now to try to do better” and that “it’s not willful, it’s not intentional, not to notify.”
Hankins said she believed it was intentional. “Just because everybody out here — I bet you 90% of them were your drug users or homeless and y’all just don’t care.”
“Well, I’m sorry you feel like that, but that’s not true,” Grisham-Stewart said.
“It’s the truth,” Hankins replied.
Hankins said she just wanted to get her son’s body back and give him a proper funeral.
Grisham-Stewart said that was “commendable.” But she told Hankins that she wasn’t allowed to be at the pauper’s field.
Hankins then went to find Jonathan’s grave, searching for its number, 645. Before she could find it, a sheriff’s deputy stopped her.
“Ma’am, you have to leave right now,” the deputy said.
The deputy also told an NBC News reporter and a photographer they were not allowed to be there.
In an interview later, Hinds County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Othor Cain said that under an updated policy adopted last month by the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, members of the public must ask permission to visit the pauper’s cemetery.
“It’s not a public space,” Cain said. “It’s actually just like entering our detention center, because it’s on the grounds of that facility.”
The pauper’s field — actually several distinct plots — lies along a dirt road that leads from the work farm. There are no barriers blocking the public’s entrance, but there are signs saying unauthorized vehicles are prohibited.
Cain said he could not provide a copy of the updated policy because it takes “20 to 30 days” after a vote until it becomes an official document.
Hankins said her funeral home was able to exhume Jonathan’s remains later on Friday — his service is scheduled for Feb. 10 — but she did not trust Hinds County and wanted proof that the remains were actually her son’s.
“It makes it like they are hiding something even more, when they wouldn’t even let me walk up there and see where he was buried. What are they hiding?”
After being turned away, Hankins, along with her sister and some friends, got in their cars and turned back down a dirt road and left the work farm.
“I wanted to see him,” Hankins said on the side of the road.
Then she began to cry.