When Heather Burton’s phone rings, she knows there is a good chance it won’t be good news on the other end.
It is a reality that she has become accustomed to since taking office as the Sunflower County coroner in 2008.
She doesn’t relish a single one of those calls, but each one is an opportunity for her to comfort and serve grieving families and to be a voice for those who are victims of violent crimes, drunk driving accidents and other horrific crimes.
Heather went to work for Card Funeral Home in August of 2003, and she worked directly under Douglas Card, who was the Sunflower County coroner at the time.
A year after going to work for the funeral home, Heather said her boss was involved in an accident, and she began driving him when he went on calls as coroner.
“The first call I went on was a homicide,” Heather told The Enterprise-Tocsin. “It was an 86-year-old woman who had been shot because she wouldn’t co-sign on a car.”
The woman had been shot by a man she had adopted as her son, she said.
“The woman was sitting on the bed reading a Bible, and she was shot five times,” Heather said. “It just lit a fire to be able to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.”
After that, Heather said she went on every call with Card for the next four years.
“We have seen some horrific things I wish I could unsee,” she said.
Heather and her husband Jamie started dating when they were teenagers. Their twin daughters, Madison and Mary Margaret, were 3 years old when she first got into the funeral business.
Heather and Jamie bought the former Mortimer Funeral Home on U.S. 82 in Indianola back in 2010.
“I wanted to do things the way I wanted to do them and be able to offer families the service I wanted to offer,” Heather said.
Originally, Jamie was going to set aside farming and go to work at the funeral home.
“But a new business starting off, it just wouldn’t financially support us both at that time,” Heather said.
She has been in office as coroner for well over a decade, and while every death is terrible, the last four years have been extremely impactful in terms of witnessing multiple tragedies, including the July 2017 Yanky 72 military plane crash, victims of rioting at Parchman in 2020, the death toll from COVID-19 over the past year-plus and the increasing number of people killed due to gun violence in the county, particularly in Indianola.
“Those kinds of things sit with you, and they weigh hard on you,” Heather said. “I don’t know any way to just dispose of those memories. If there is a way, I haven’t figured it out. The good Lord gives you strength for what he wants you to do, because I know I’m not doing it on my own.”
July 10, 2017
Much has been written about the Yanky72 KC-130 crash that took place just over the Leflore County line on July 10, 2017.
That hot, summer day will stick with all of the first responders for the rest of their lives.
For the Sunflower County coroner, it’s a day she wishes she could blot out of her memory forever.
The initial news reports, she said, indicated a crop duster had gone down near the county line.
“I was getting ready to leave for the day and go home,” Heather said. “Every time the phone dinged, it was something else. It could have been a larger plane. The deputy coroner in Leflore County called and asked me to be on standby to come help. We just waited a few minutes, and he called and said, ‘Just come on.’”
When she arrived, she did not know it was a military plane, and she did not know how many people were on board.
“When you realize it’s a military plane, it takes a whole new level,” she said.
She was at the crash site from 5:30 p.m. that day until just after midnight, when she got a call of a death in Sunflower County. “We were going through with different color flags, marking victims, plane parts, ammunition,” she said. “Just walking down those turnrows and seeing all those flags, if I see a flag now, I’ll get sick to my stomach. It does something to you… It did something to all of the first responders. In small town Mississippi, you don’t see that.”
Heather said it took her two years before she would attend the annual memorial service that is held in honor of the 16 military servicemen.
“I’m very tenderhearted,” she said. “And things may stick with me a little more… It’s going to stick with you. If it doesn’t bother you, if you can shut it out, you don’t need to be doing this. You would be so callused toward the families you’re serving, you don’t need to do that.”
The Sunflower County coroner is tasked with answering calls over every square inch of the county, which includes two miles north of Rome all the way down to Caile.
It’s not uncommon for Heather to be called to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
But in January of 2020, her first call to the prison was not the ordinary.
“It was 12:35 a.m. when I got the call (on New Year’s Day),” she said.
Heather had no idea that morning she was walking into a volatile situation that would capture international headlines for weeks.
Rioting at Parchman that week resulted in multiple deaths, fires and all manner of dysfunction. She had to investigate multiple suicides as well.
“It’s just a scary situation,” she said. “It’s unnerving when you have to go into the units, because you have the inmate to guard ratio that is way off. It’s very unnerving to say the least.”
Heather said she has never had a physical altercation with an inmate, but she has seen the worst the prison had to offer in terms of carnage.
Over the course of the last year and a half, things have gotten better at the prison, she said.
“I don’t think we’ve had a homicide there this year,” Heather said.
Answering multiple calls for inmates who have died of natural causes, she said the prison itself is vastly improved since the start of 2020.
“The appearance of it is cleaner since they’ve started making some improvements,” she said. “When I go, I see more of them working in the yards, where that had become a thing of the past.”
Almost as soon as the Parchman crisis subsided, 2020 brought another kind of tragedy.
COVID-19 began to shut everything down in late March of last year, including open funerals.
“I never thought it was going to get this bad,” Heather said. “We saw a lot of deaths from it in this county,”
Heather said that she spent a significant amount of time in every COVID unit in Sunflower County, as well as ones outside of the county where residents passed away.
“During that time, I was trying to keep myself safe,” she said. “I’ve taken six showers in a day, changing clothes and trying to keep everything sanitary.”
On top of visiting hospitals, Heather still had to respond to homes where people passed away.
“You go into houses, and you don’t know who’s had COVID and who’s got COVID,” she said.
One of the most painful parts of the shutdown over the past year has been the inability to have funeral services open to all family and friends.
“That’s not what people here are accustomed to,” she said. “There are people bringing food to houses before I can make it here on a coroner’s call in this community. People support one another, and COVID stopped that.”
Heather said she and Jamie have been fortunate enough to apparently have avoided contracting the virus.
Indianola saw six homicides in 2019.
There were four in 2020, all women, and two of them – Beatrice Williams and Alberta Garner - just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
As county coroner, Heather has been vocal about the impact these deaths, often of teenagers, have had on her.
“I would like to see an end to the killing, the senseless deaths,” Heather said. “Find another way to deal with it. It’s heartbreaking to everybody. There are so many emotions involved, from the suspect’s side, the victim’s side, the community as a whole. We need to get our sense of unity back.”
Answering calls as a coroner is always difficult, but it makes it all the more emotional when the victims or the suspects are teenagers.
“It makes me angry that they think that’s the way to solve problems,” she said. “This environment is not the Sunflower County I grew up in. We didn’t have all the violent crime when I was young that we’re seeing now. It’s worldwide, but it’s especially hard here because I know these people. I may not know the 16 or 17-year-old, but I know their grandmama, their aunts and uncles.”
The Mission Continues
There are no signs of slowing down for Heather Burton, whether it be as coroner or as a funeral home director.
But last year, she was delighted that her husband, Jamie, was finally able to set his duties aside on the farm and join her full time at Burton Funeral Home.
For over a decade, he has followed farming hours, and she has been subject to getting calls any day of the year, at any hour.
“When I go on a call, it can go from a heart attack in the ER that lasts 30 minutes and I’m back home, or a homicide at Parchman, and it’s five hours before I get home,” she said. “I never know when the phone rings how long it’s going to be…We’ve been opening Christmas presents, we’ve been in the middle of church, in the middle of funerals.”
With Madison and Mary Margaret now in their third year of college, she’s looking forward to many more years of running the business side with Jamie.
“We were both thankful last year for him to come to work here full time,” she said. “It’s given us an opportunity to get closer… It’s working well. We’re enjoying it, because now when I have bad hours and am working 60 to 70 to 80 hours a week, he’s here right beside me.”