Gretchen Hankins stood by as her only son, Jonathan David Hankins, was laid to rest in a family plot for his burial, over a year after he was initially buried in a pauper’s grave without her knowledge. This act marked the culmination of a long and distressing journey for the Hankins family, who had been searching for Jonathan for more than 17 months, unaware that he had already been found deceased.

The Oversight

Jonathan, at the age of 39, was discovered dead from an overdose in a motel and subsequently buried in a pauper’s field by Hinds County authorities, a common practice for those deemed “unclaimed” or without financial means for a funeral. This field, outside the Hinds County jail work farm, typically uses numbered markers rather than names, leaving Jonathan known only as “645” at his initial resting place.

The circumstances surrounding Jonathan’s death and burial highlight a significant issue within Mississippi’s system for dealing with unclaimed bodies. Despite having a family desperately searching for him, a communication breakdown led to his burial in a pauper’s grave, a fate shared with several other individuals in recent years.

The Search for Answers

Mississippi Mother Reclaims Son's Remains After Pauper's Grave Burial
Jonathan David Hankins is the third missing grave identified since October 2023

Gretchen’s ordeal began when Jonathan disappeared from their home in Rankin County in May 2022. Despite her efforts to locate him, including filing a police report and engaging volunteers to search, it wasn’t until an investigation by NBC News into botched death notifications that she learned of her son’s fate. This revelation has since ignited a broader conversation about the protocols for identifying and notifying next of kin in such cases.

In the wake of this discovery, Gretchen and other families who have faced similar situations are now seeking accountability and change. The confrontation between Gretchen and Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart underscored the anguish and frustration experienced by families who find themselves navigating this painful reality.

A Community’s Support

The reburial service, held at a rural church cemetery, drew about 50 attendees, including family, friends, and individuals who had contributed to the search for Jonathan. The ceremony provided not only a sense of closure for those gathered but also a stark reminder of the personal stories behind cases of unclaimed bodies. Thomas Goolsby, a close friend of Jonathan, offered a eulogy that painted a picture of a man loved by many, despite his struggles.

Looking Forward

As the Hankins family grapples with their loss and the circumstances that delayed their mourning, their story sheds light on the need for systemic improvements. Gretchen’s determination to seek justice and reforms aims to ensure that no other family has to endure the pain of not knowing the fate of a loved one or the indignity of a pauper’s burial when there are those who wish to claim them.

The case of Jonathan David Hankins serves as a call to action for better coordination and compassion in handling the remains of the deceased, ensuring that every individual is treated with dignity and that families have the opportunity to say their final goodbyes.