The crematory operator, 39-year-old Craig Garnette, checks to make sure he has the right body, then wheels Jane Doe #59 into the gray, high-ceilinged room where he spends most days working alone. Garnette slides her body and two others into the three brick-and-sheet-metal furnaces and pushes the "on" button. Two hours later, he shuts the oven down and opens the furnace doors. When the ashes are cool and processed, he shakes them into separate numbered urns about the size and shape of loaf pans, covers the tin boxes and shelves them chronologically on metal racks.
There, Jane Doe #59's ashes will sit untouched for more than four years while the county holds off interring the remains--just in case someone comes forward to claim her. No one does.
FOR SEVERAL DAYS EACH DECEMBER, the cemetery is unusually busy. Only one funeral per year is held there--county employees call it simply "the service"--and the grounds must be prepared. Clyde Emerson, director of decedent affairs at County-USC Medical Center, arrives at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 11, 2000, driving a pickup truck. Under the arm of his suit coat, he clutches a change of clothes for the grim, dirty and physically demanding job that awaits him. An administrator who spends most of his days behind a desk, Emerson easily could have delegated the job to someone else. But since the East 1st Street cemetery is among his responsibilities, he felt he should be here.
Inside the mortuary, Garnette and Albert Gaskin, who, at 60, oversees the hospital morgue, already are waiting. The three men put on disposable white coveralls, surgical masks and paper caps and begin moving urns off the storage racks and into the back of Emerson's pickup. When the truck is loaded, Emerson steers it across the grass to a single grave, 8 feet long, dug beneath the branches of a spreading tree. One by one, the trio carries the tin boxes to the side of the hole, where gloved fingers pry off the lids and pour. As they work, a fine dust settles on their necks, eyebrows and ears.
Four hours and three more truckloads later, the communal grave holds the remains of 2,703 people cremated by the county in 1996, the majority of whom have names, if nothing else. Many of them passed away in nursing homes or hospitals, but they ended up here as indigents because their families were either too poor or too indifferent to arrange private burials. Others, such as immigrants who died far away from their native lands, went unclaimed because no one could locate their next of kin. The 33-member society to which Jane Doe #59 belonged--individuals rendered nameless by death all the way to this depressing destination--make up the remainder.
Four days after covering the grave, Emerson, Gaskin and Garnette meet at the cemetery again for the service. They are the only mourners, and they gather around Phil Manly, a second-generation county hospital chaplain and interdenominational Protestant minister.
Manly, who has presided over the annual ceremony for each of the last 28 years, wears a contented smile and a green tie with Santas on it. The county is required by law only to inter unclaimed remains, but the funeral has been a tradition for as long as anyone can remember, a voluntary, albeit imperfect, exercise in decency. "It's still kind of an awesome service for me," Manly says. "I do many individual services throughout the year, but only one like this."
A fist-sized stone marker stands at the foot of the grave. It's inscribed "1996," the year Jane Doe #59 and the others buried with her were cremated. On top rests a young bougainvillea bush and a pair of cellophane-wrapped poinsettias, courtesy of Gaskin, that crackle in the morning breeze.
The county is squeamish about publicizing the service, and so Orlando Castaneda had no idea the woman whose body he found in 1995 was finally being buried. Had he known, he says he would have attended because the young woman remains a part of his life in ways both mundane and profound. Castaneda has stopped going on trail rides by himself. He also has stopped visiting his horses in their stalls at night "because I always worried about having her spirit appear to me." Every so often he thinks of her and prays that her soul is at rest. "That is one of the things I worry about: If I die, will my soul not rest?"
Standing above the final resting place of 2,703 people, it's impossible not to ask the same question. Manly attempts to answer it. Raising his voice above a lawn mower and weed trimmer wailing nearby, he opens his Bible and reads the reassuring words of Psalm 121: "I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth."
He also quotes John Donne, dwelling not on the famous "No man is an island" passage, but the lines that come before: "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language."