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Decades-Old Stored Ashes Spur Cemetery Suspension

Thousands of containers of remains, believed to have been unclaimed, are found stacked up at Grand View Memorial Park in Glendale.

November 05, 2005|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

The state suspended the license of a Glendale cemetery this week after finding cremated remains of up to 4,000 people who died as long ago as the 1930s stuffed in storage rooms and trash containers.

State regulators believe that the remains found at Grand View Memorial Park belonged to people who died indigent or without next of kin willing to claim their bodies or pay for their burials.

"These were probably people whose family never picked up the ashes," said Kevin Flanagan, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs and its Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. "It's not unusual for a cemetery to get these kinds of remains. The problem is: You're supposed to be burying them."

Instead, the cemetery apparently kept the ashes in storage for decades, officials said. When investigators recently searched the grounds, they discovered remains -- stuffed in boxes and plastic containers -- stacked in parts of a mausoleum. They also found skeletal remains in a nearby chapel.

The ashes "were in cardboard containers, plastic urns. Some of them had names," said Lisa Whitney, deputy chief of the state funeral bureau.

"If you were dealing with an infant or a child, the boxes were much smaller," she said.

A few boxes of ashes were found in a Dumpster and had clearly been earmarked for disposal off-site, she said. That finding left officials wondering whether more remains had already been removed.

"I was actually in the Dumpster, and I remember looking around and it was obvious this was being used for garbage" not just storage, Whitney said. "There was everything there, from old paint cans to shrubbery."

Labels on many of the boxes suggest that the majority of the remains were from the 1930s and '40s, with a smaller amount from the '60s. Some may be from the '70s.

Officials said poor recordkeeping by the cemetery makes it hard to determine the exact dates.

Since the discovery, the state has launched a broader investigation and will turn over information to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The cemetery is now prohibited from performing any new burials -- apart from those already planned or involving plots that have already been sold.

It is also barred from selling new plots or soliciting business. Grand View's president and co-owner, Marsha Howard, is barred from entering the cemetery.

"Right now, we don't think any of this was done with any criminal intent," Flanagan said. "However, it looks to be a case of extremely bad practices."

Howard is allowed to enter her home, which is on the cemetery grounds, but only through her front door, on Glenwood Road.

Howard, who has owned and operated the cemetery since 1999, could not be reached for comment, and a Grand View employee said no one there would comment.

When confronted by regulators, Howard said she did not know what was being stored in the parts of the mausoleum and chapel where the remains were found, according to Sherrie Moffet-Bell, chief of the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.

"When we went through the inspection, a field rep asked her to open a door, and she claimed she had never been in that part of the cemetery," Moffet-Bell said.

Los Angeles County officials said it's not unusual for remains that are identified to go unclaimed.

Phil Manly, chaplain at County-USC Medical Center, which runs the county crematorium in Boyle Heights, said that after remains are cremated, they are carefully kept in individual boxes with two identification tags.

If no one claims them within three years, they are placed in a common grave on the grounds of the crematorium.

Each year, more than 1,500 sets of remains reach the three-year mark, he said.

For remains in the county's possession, "only about 10% to 20%" are ever claimed, Manly said.

"There's a lot of homeless people out there, or people who alienated their family and who are not homeless, but they die and nobody takes care of them," he said.

It remains unclear why Grand View came to have so many unclaimed remains.

Most are presumed to be from bodies that were taken to local funeral homes many decades ago and went unclaimed. Those funeral homes then probably turned the remains over to the cemetery.

Moffet-Bell said many cemeteries, including Grand View, have gardens where ashes can be scattered or buried.

The remains that date from the 1930s might be of people who died penniless during the Great Depression.

In some cases, ashes were commingled, Flanagan said. According to the state's complaint, cemetery officials also sold some burial plots that had previously been sold.

State officials and Glendale police served a search warrant at the cemetery Wednesday, a month after a routine inspection revealed the problem, Flanagan said.

It was the first inspection of Grand View since the state began annual inspections a year and a half ago, he said. Previously, the state had inspected cemeteries only when a complaint was filed.

Moffet-Bell said officials from the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau would work closely with cemetery officials to clear up all the problems.

Flanagan said that after as many as 75 years, "these remains will be treated with the dignity they deserve and disposed of properly."

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