Day of the Dead

Yesterday, 1,440* persons were buried in the "potter's field" at the Los Angeles County Crematorium Cemetery. For their ashes, a plastic bag and a common grave. For them, a few words in passing. "We have a prayer and read some Scripture and just mention that no one claimed these people," said the Rev. Philip Manly before the 2006 mass burial. "Because no one was there to care for them, we do this."

Los Angeles has not always been so caring for its dead.

In the Ciudad de Los Angeles of the 1840s, Calle Eternidad (Eternity Street) ended at a dusty town cemetery on the flank of a shallow arroyo north of the plaza. A separate burial ground for the new Anglo population took over a portion of Fort Moore Hill in the 1850s. When both burial grounds fell into disrepair in the 1880s, some of the interments were removed to newer cemeteries.

But most of the burials on Fort Moore Hill were deliberately forgotten. According to memoirist (and cynic) Horace Bell, "The city allowed promoters to map (the old cemetery), cut it up and sell it off in small building lots. In building streets through it, human remains were excavated and scattered and today, wagons rattle through streets built up over buried human bodies. Houses stand on graves. . . . The city never pretended to remove and reinter elsewhere the bodies resting there. Boom insanity blighted not only people's good judgment but their humanity and sense of justice."

Parts of northern downtown overly the old burial ground on what was Fort Moore Hill. Parts of Chinatown and the playing fields of Cathedral High School cover the older cemetery further north.

It had been quartered into distinct neighborhoods: Jewish, Catholic, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and other fraternal organizations. A portion was set aside the Chinese. But in 1880s, booming Los Angeles set about segregating its dead even more rigorously. Catholics went to Calvary, outside the city limits; Protestants went to Evergreen and Rosedale (just west of Vermont Avenue). Jews eventually went to Home of Peace (also outside the city limits).

The poor and the forgotten of Los Angeles were buried in a separate section at the edge of Evergreen Cemetery. It had been donated to the city as part of the deal that deeded the cemetery land to its developers in 1877.

But it wasn't just the poor and forgotten who were consigned to the margins. The city's Chinese, now outlawed from every other burial place, were interred in their plot next to the "potter's field."

The "potter's field" soon filled with all of those who didn't find "health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine," although the booster advertisements for Los Angeles promised no less. The crowded plot was transferred from the city to the county in 1917. Cremations of the unclaimed eventually replaced burials.

Today, the bodies of the unclaimed are kept for two years and then cremated. Yesterday's burials bring the county's accounts up to 2008. But many thousands more are waiting. The Los Angeles County Crematorium Cemetery will eventually take them in, with a payer and the unknown kindness of strangers.

* The number was over 1,600 persons, accordiing to media reports on Thursday.

The image on this page is from the author's collection.