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Some Forgotten Angeleños, Remembered Briefly

It's supposed to be overcast on Wednesday morning (12/10) when the ashes of unclaimed Angeleños -- 843 men, 431 women, and 139 children -- will be placed in a common grave at the Los Angeles County Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

More than 1,400 of them were buried there last year. More were buried there the year before. The number of the unclaimed totals more than 5,500.

For the remains, a box or bag. For the souls of the dead, a few words of blessing. "We're trying to remember and honor these people who had a story and a history," the Reverend Chris Ponnet, a chaplain at County-USC Medical Center who leads the brief service, told the Los Angeles Times last year.

County Supervisor Don Knabe, who has a deep regard for these forgotten or unknown Angeleños, hopes the day might 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 told the Times in 2011. "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."

It should matter as much to distant relatives, but it hasn't been easy for family members to learn the status of those the county cremates. Responsibility for the indigent dead is split between the coroner's office and the Department of Decedent Affairs. Only the coroner's information is digitized.

As one result of a series of stories in the Times about the unclaimed dead, a complete list will be online by next December, making it easier for relatives outside Los Angeles to learn what has become of an estranged family member.

Even then, there will be fees to be paid, paperwork to be filled out, and a trip to the cemetery to collect the remains. Understandably, that means some of the unclaimed, even when relatives are found, will not be going home.

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It would be a mistake to assume that all those to be buried on Wednesday are unwanted. Among the undocumented in Los Angeles, a sudden 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. Out of fear, their grief was unnecessarily kept private.

But the dead do not expose the living to ICE, according to coroner's officials. Still, torn between family obligation and fears of legal consequences, some in the undocumented community feel they must consign their dead to the county.

In the 1890s, burials of the indigent were the responsibility of the city. The poor were interred in the section of Evergreen Cemetery originally donated to the city as part of the deal that deeded the cemetery land to its developers in 1877.

The land and responsibility were transferred from the city to the county in 1917. Cremations eventually replaced burials.

But it wasn't just the poor who were consigned to the margins. The city's Chinese, outlawed from every other burial place, were interred in a plot next to the common "potter's field." In those days, white indigents were buried for free. The Chinese were required to pay a fee.

Eternal Angeleños

 In the Mexican town of the 1830s, the dead were buried in the lot adjacent to the plaza church. In the 1840s, the dead were taken to a dusty burial ground on the flank of a shallow arroyo north of the plaza, now the playing fields of Cathedral High School.

A separate cemetery for the city's American and Protestant population took over a portion of Fort Moore Hill in the 1853. According to Glen Creason, map librarian at the Central Library, "these burial grounds were free from segregation -- all races were welcome after death."

The city took over the site in 1869 and hired a caretaker in 1871, but the headstones were already dilapidated and many burials were unmarked. The city banned future interments after 1879, except those for families and fraternal organizations that had bought designated plots.

When both the old burial ground north of the plaza and the city cemetery on Fort Moore Hill were abandoned, some graves were removed to the city's newer cemeteries. Most of the burials on Fort Moore Hill were deliberately forgotten.

'Old' Calvary Cemetery, 1920s
'Old' Calvary Cemetery, 1920s | Author's collection

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."

Booming Los Angeles in the 1890s set about segregating its dead even more rigorously than it did the living. Many Protestants went to Rosedale (on the city's fashionable Westside). Catholics went to Calvary, outside the city limits. Jews eventually went to Home of Peace, across the street from the Catholics. The Chinese and Serbian dead had their separate resting places nearby.

The poor, the unknown, the forgotten, and the misplaced are given to the county cemetery, their mass graves marked with a metal plaque denoting the year of their burial. The county cemetery holds an estimated 100,000 Angeleños who didn't find "health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine," although booster advertisements for a century promised no less.

The county attempts to track down a family member who will accept the ashes and pay cremation costs. And if no one comes forward after about three years, the county cemetery will receive these unclaimed Angeleños on another morning in December.

They will be welcomed with a prayer and the kindness of strangers.

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