ALLENDALE, S.C. – James Hines was a giant — a 6-foot-7, 300-pound preacher and funk musician so big that after he died in 2004, a macabre rumor began circulating in this small town that the undertaker had to cut off his legs to fit him in the coffin.
This week, after years of whispers, Hines' body was exhumed, and the gruesome story appeared to be all too true.
The coroner's office said only that it had found "undesirable evidence," and a criminal investigation has been opened. But Hines' widow said investigators told her that his legs had been cut off between the ankle and calf, and his feet had been placed inside the casket.
"It's just like pulling the scab off an old sore. I was kind of like smoothing things out. But now it's like starting all over again," Ann Hines said Thursday, two days after investigators pulled the casket from the ground, lifted the lid, photographed the contents and returned it to the earth, all without leaving the graveyard.
Under South Carolina law, destroying or desecrating human remains is punishable by one to 10 years in prison.
Reached this week, a man who identified himself as the owner of Cave Funeral Home, which handled the funeral, declined to comment.
The allegations were so startling that funeral directors around the country are talking about the case.
"You hear old wives' tales about this around the turn of the century, but, no, this was a shock to me," said Doggett Whitaker, a past president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Ann Hines said that she and her family went to the funeral home after her husband's death to make the final arrangements, and she picked out a standard-size casket. At the funeral, only the top half of the lid was open, showing Hines from the chest up, she said. She said nobody ever suggested a bigger box.
Funeral directors sometimes pull up the knees or shift the padding in the coffin to make sure the body fits. But the best solution is usually a longer casket, Whitaker said, adding: "Just being upfront and honest with the family is the best path to take."
He said bodies are usually measured and families told where a corpse's head will rest in the casket. Longer caskets are routinely manufactured, though they cost more than standard ones.
Duffie Stone, the county prosecutor, would not comment on the investigation.
Around town, Hines was an unforgettable figure, and not just because of his size. An albino black man, he performed for decades as a soul and funk guitarist.
His group, J. Hines and the Boys, never hit it big but filled clubs and auditoriums in the Southeast, and small radio stations played some of its recordings, including "Funky Funk" and "Can't Think of Nothing (Blank Mind)."
He gave up what he called his instrument of sin when he found God in the early 1990s. But his pastor had heard Hines' recordings and, convinced that Hines should share his gift, took him to buy a new guitar.
Eventually, Hines became a minister in Allendale, about 75 miles southwest of the capital, Columbia. He played his guitar during services at the church he built and on a nearby Christian radio station until his death from skin cancer at 60.
At his funeral, several people, including one of Hines' five children, said the casket looked too small. Hines was about 79 inches tall in his bare feet, according to his family.
The interior length of a standard coffin is about 80 inches but can vary by a few inches, depending on the padding, the thickness of the walls and other features, said Scott Jones, chief executive of Service Casket Co., a casket distributor in Columbus, Ga.
After the funeral, the rumors began — started, some say, by a former funeral home worker — and it seemed as if all 3,700 people in town were talking about the burial.
Ann Hines said she threatened to sue Cave Funeral Home and the business agreed to settle out of court as long as she did not tell anyone how much she received. She said workers at the funeral home never told her exactly what happened. She said she accepted the deal and tried to forget about the whole thing and stop wondering why nobody even apologized.
Eventually, someone called the South Carolina Board of Funeral Service, and the coroner and an investigator with the agency received the widow's permission to dig up the grave.