KINGSTREE, S.C. — While the phrase “celebration of life” is heard frequently during funerals, the presence of a celebration often not so evident. When thousands of family members, friends, colleagues and more gathered for the funeral of Sonya Burgess Sunday in Kingstree, a celebration was held.
Throngs of people fell into lines that wrapped around the gymnasium of Kingstree Senior High School while some grouped in designated areas for special seating. The special groups represented connections Burgess had developed during her 39 years through community, college and coworkers. The groups included Kingstree Senior High faculty and staff, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., sisters, the 1991 class of Estill High School, the 1995 class of Claflin College (now Claflin University), and more.
Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson estimated the crowd reached about 6,000 at its peak.
Burgess was killed the night of Feb. 18 as a result of a car wreck in Williamsburg County. Her three children also were in the vehicle, which overturned on Highway 52 near Cades Crossroad, but none sustained serious injury. The program distributed to funeral-goers confirmed that Burgess also was pregnant at the time of her death. The final line of the program read, “… God decided that Sonya had done all that she could and decided to bring two of His angels home, Sonya and Baby Burgess.”
A complete and official report from Williamsburg County Coroner Harrison McKnight has not yet been released. The accident remains under the investigation of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. One driver involved in the accident, Daveline Holmes, was charged with reckless homicide the following day. The decision whether to charge another, unnamed driver involved in the accident has not been made by the authorities.
Forty-five minutes after the commencement of the funeral service Sunday, attendees were still being seated in the gym, which one school official estimated held about 1,500 in the bleachers. Another 500 or so chairs were placed on the court. Large crowds of people were turned away at the door and redirected to another location on campus where the funeral was being televised.
Praise songs were scattered amongst the events listed in the program. The performance of the songs were backed by a full band and coupled with joyous singing from the crowd, which also clapped and stomped along. It was a celebration of life.
A few selected close friends of Burgess spoke briefly about their memories of the late Kingstree Senior High science department chair, athletic director, and head girls basketball and volleyball coach.
“She was a beautiful young lady,” John Gordon of Lovewell Baptist Church said. “And, she lived a beautiful life.”
“Sonya did not want it to be anything less than a celebration, because that’s the kind of love and kind of expression that she’s exhibited through the years,” Williamsburg County Supervisor Stanley Pasley said. “So, I would ask you all to loosen up and let’s celebrate Sonya’s home-going.”
Pasley presented Burgess’ Husand, Marcus, with a resolution from the county honoring the memory of his wife.
A sorority sister and 20-plus-years’ friend of Burgess, Freya Sullivan, drew smiles, laughter and shouts of “Amen” from the crowd when she addressed her respect for the departed.
“Sonya was the type of friend that when you needed to call on her, she was there,” Sullivan said. When I heard the news, of course there was a void. But at the same time, I said, ‘Sonya lived a complete life.’ Sonya lived the life that many of us are trying to get to.”
Sullivan also spoke directly to the Kingstree High girls’ basketball squad, which sat front row on the floor, decked in their stand-out black and gold Jaguars uniforms.
“To the players … Mrs. Burgess changed your lives,” she said. “Make sure you give 110 percent in everything you do. Leave it all on the court like she did.”
She drew her speech to a close as she thanked Burgess’ parents for the life of their daughter.
“To daddy and momma Smith, you know you broke the mold when you made her,” she said. “There’s no duplicate. We thank you for the seed you’ve sown. Look at the harvest. Look around everyone, this is a harvest.”