This article is part of The Lost Rites, a series In America’s failed death notification system.
MENDENHALL, Miss. – Gretchen Hankins arrived at the village church cemetery Saturday afternoon and walked past a row of granite headstones, reading each name. One marked the burial place of his cousin. One listed his brother’s name and the other his uncle’s name. Next to his mother’s headstone, he came to the freshly dug grave where he would finally hold his only son.
“I know it’s just a body,” she said. “But everyone needs a place you can go to tell family members you love them after they’re gone.”
More than 17 months have passed since Hinds County authorities declared the body of her 39-year-old son, Jonathan David Hankins, “unclaimed” and buried him in a poor field outside the Hinds County jail farm in Raymond. drive.
That grave was dug by prisoners and only the number – 645 – was hand-painted on a metal pole.
This is how Mississippi’s most populous county handles the bodies of those who can’t afford funerals or their families. But Jonathan, like some else men buried in a pauper’s field in recent years, he had friends and family to claim him—if only they’d been told he was dead.
for more than a year and a half After her son disappeared from her Rankin County home in May 2022, Gretchen searched and prayed for him to come home. A few weeks after she went missing, she filed a police complaint and asked for help on social media. A friend uploaded Jonathan’s name and photo to a public missing persons database. Volunteers searched nearby waterways with sonar, thinking they might find him and his car submerged below.
All the while, authorities in neighboring Hinds County responded, but they didn’t share it.
Jackson police found Hankins dead of an overdose at a motel on May 23, 2022, days after she went missing. The Hinds County coroner’s office identified him based on his fingerprints, records show. The deputy coroner said he passed the information on to police, but police said they never received any such information.
The records do not indicate what, if any, efforts the coroner’s office or the Jackson Police Department made to contact Jonathan’s family before the county buried him in September.
Gretchen finally learned of her son’s death and burial in December after NBC News found Jonathan’s name. list of people burials of the poor and shared the information with him news organization investigation to failed death notices. After viewing photos that confirmed it was Jonathan’s body, he joined a growing number of angry families who discovered their loved ones were buried in a poor field in Hinds County months or years after the fact.
Like the others, Gretchen had to pay the county $300 to get her son’s remains back. Last week, he visited a pauper’s cemetery to watch a crew exhume his body, only to be escorted out of jail by a sheriff’s deputy. While there, Gretchen confronted Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart and demanded to know why the county had never contacted her.
Grisham-Stewart told Gretchen that the failure was not her fault.
“I’m sorry if I’m having a hard time looking for people” he said. “I don’t know how to find people.”
“But it’s your job,” Gretchen said, “and when you take it, you have to learn how to do it.”
Gretchen and other victimized family members demanded answers and hired lawyers. Gretchen hopes to channel her anger into forcing change and preventing this from happening to other families.
On Saturday, he was focused on a more urgent task: giving his son the funeral he had been denied.
Mourners began arriving around 1 p.m. Saturday at the small Simpson County cemetery across the street from the Baptist church Gretchen attended with her sisters as a child. He said he wasn’t sure how many would show up. He hoped that there would be those who loved his son despite his faults.
“Jonathan wasn’t perfect,” she said moments before the hearse arrived with the casket. “He just didn’t deserve what he got.”
About 50 people gathered for the ceremony when the pallbearers carried Jonathan’s coffin to the grave. Uncle from the state. Growing up, a friend called Jonathan “Stitches” – a reference to an infamous childhood injury. His cousin is among those asking for help to find him on Facebook.
Thomas Goolsby, who offered a $15,000 reward for information on Jonathan’s whereabouts, praised his best friend as a loving son and devoted father who fought to overcome addiction.
“John was a good man,” Goolsby said. “He was a misunderstood man at times.
He was a colleague. My best friend. He was my therapist. He was my brother.”
After relatives sang “Amazing Grace” and walked to their cars, the crew began to lower Jonathan’s casket into the ground.
Her son finally came home, Gretchen said, to be buried with relatives, not strangers.