This Is How Los Angeles Buries Their Unclaimed Dead
There are more than 10 million people living in Los Angeles County, people from every corner of the world, inhabiting every corner of the county.
All of them were somebody's baby once, and all of them will eventually die, some sooner than others. Each of those deaths will be different—there are, after all, infinite ways to die—and each of those passings will be commemorated in its own way, with its own individual ripples of grief. Some will be buried by friends, some will be buried by family, and some will be buried by the county.
Roughly 60,000 people die every year in Los Angeles County, and a thousand of them will go unclaimed. For more than a century, the county has held a public ceremony at the close of every year to bury and honor those residents. Their bodies are cremated by the coroner's office, and then held for three years as the office tries to identify and contact the next of kin.
On Wednesday, the earthly remains of 1,430 Angelenos were interred in a mass grave on a small hill in a county owned plot at the southernmost edge of Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. They were buried under a plaque engraved with the numbers 2013, the year in which they died. According to D.J. Waldie, "The county cemetery holds an estimated 100,000 Angelenos who didn't find 'health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine.'"
"In many cases they were identified, but there's no family, or the family's too poor to take the remains. At the end of the day, the county's the ultimate safety net," County Supervisor Don Knabe said after the service. The supervisor, who is retiring this year, is often the only elected official at the event. He has dedicated himself to the service for his two decades in office.
"When these folks started out, they were kids. They had a family. They had hopes and dreams. They were playing in a park, they were doing whatever they were doing. Who knows what their circumstances were, whether it's a youngster in high school or an adult, that they wind up like this. But they were a human being, and they deserve that dignity," Knabe said.
Two hundred people (county workers, clergy, press, curious and respectful citizens) gathered for this year's service to pay their respects to the forgotten dead. Because the faith and beliefs of those 1,430 souls remain unknown, prayers were offered in myriad languages and traditions. The L.A. Times reports that more than 900 of the individuals buried this year were men, approximately 400 were women, and more than 120 were babies. You can read the names of those who were identified here.
Reverend Chris Ponnet, a chaplain at County-USC Medical Center, led the brief service. "We gather as a community to say their stories are honorable," he told the crowd.
Raquel Salinas burned sage in the Yokut tradition. A Jewish funeral prayer, Buddhist and Hindu chants, and a section of text from the Koran were all read aloud.
Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want...) was recited in English, Spanish and Fijian. The Lord's Prayer (Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...) was repeated in English, Spanish and Korean. Together, a Lutheran reverend and a Catholic deacon recited Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" (You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,/ You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise...).
At the service's close, Chaplain Manuel Torres lit a bowl of incense and placed it at the edge of the plaque next to a large bouquet of flowers, making space for the gathered Angelenos to pay their individual respects to the thousand-plus people they will never meet.
"We're not religious. We don't have any religious tradition, but we like to come here annually," Anne Marie Kinney told LAist as she stood with her toddler Simone and her husband Abraham Kinney at the edge of the crowd after the ceremony. "It's a way of having some reverence for life, and showing [Simone] to care for everyone, even people we don't know."
"Twenty years ago there were ten of us here. Now there's over two hundred," Knabe said. "These people come from all over the country and they get to California and they get to L.A. County. It's pretty amazing when you stop to think about that—the county's had the wherewithal and the dignity to be doing this since 1896."