On a cold, slightly windy Wednesday morning (12/07), the ashes of 1,639 unknown or unwanted Angeleños - including as many as 300 newborns whose families could not afford a burial - were placed in a common grave at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery.
For their ashes, a small plastic bag. For the dead, a few words of blessing.
County Supervisor Don Knabe hoped the day could have a larger meaning. "These are people that, for one reason or another, have no one but the County of Los Angeles to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial," he said. "Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of their lives mattered. It matters to us, their county family."
Some of those buried on Wednesday were mourned by acutal family members, but their grief was kept hidden. Among the undocumented, a death opens up a new anxiety: that claiming the body of a parent or child from the county will expose the rest of the family to imprisonment and deportation. But that's a myth, according to coroner's officials. These dead do not accuse the living. Still, torn between obligation and fear, many in the community of the undocumented feel they must consign their dead to the county.
Since the late 1890s, burials of the indigent and the dead left unclaimed have been the responsibility of the city and - later - the county. These Angeleños are still buried in a separate, county-owned plot at the edge of Evergreen Cemetery. (And it wasn't always just the forgotten. The city's Chinese were interred for many years in another segregated plot next to the common "potter's field.")
Some members of the Catholic Worker community attended this year's brief ceremony. Some of the dead probably included men and women whom the community members had served in their soup kitchen downtown or at the Catholic Worker house in Boyle Heights.
There are, according to the Los Angeles Times, more than 5,000 deceased Angeleños still on the coroner's list of the unclaimed. Their remains are kept for two or three years while the county attempts to track down a family member who will accept the ashes.
And if no one will, the county will eventually take them, and on another December morning, bury them with the kindness of strangers.
(For photos of the 2011 commitment, go here.)
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.