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Unclaimed and forgotten are laid to rest

This year's L.A. County service honors nearly 1,700 deceased without money for a burial. "Every human being is special," chaplain says.

December 07, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

It was small, what he came to see: just a humble metal marker in the dusty grass that read "1978."

That's the year Lance Georgeson's father died, alone and unbeknownst to the family he had left long ago. And so his estranged son stood Wednesday morning -- in the acre-sized patch where Los Angeles County buries its unclaimed dead in common graves -- to finally say goodbye.

Georgeson had traveled to the Boyle Heights cemetery from his home in Seattle, after years of genealogic detective work tracking down his dad; his parents divorced when he was a boy. The trip was about closure, said the college development officer who professes a strong Lutheran faith.

"There's a lot of stuff mixed up in there," Georgeson said of his emotions, after praying and crying over his father's grave with a chaplain. "There's shame, embarrassment, longing, all that. It's pretty heavy."

Georgeson, 52, paid his respects shortly after the county's annual service for residents whose cremated remains were never claimed. This year, 1,687 people were interred in a single 7-foot-deep plot. Over eight decades, an estimated 300,000 have been placed nearby.

Chaplain Phil Manly, who works at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, has been conducting these annual rites and blessing the remains of the indigent or those with families too poor to pay for a funeral, for more than 30 years.

"Every human being is special ... it's important that we bury them with some sense of dignity," said Manly, whose father, also a hospital chaplain, performed the same type of memorial services for the county.

Manly estimates that less than 20% of the thousands of remains are claimed from county custody. Officials wait at least two years before burying anyone, in case families are searching for them or scraping together money for a memorial.

Some honor their deceased relatives after the common burial. About 15 small stone plaques with individual names and birth and death dates are scattered around the lawn, some lined with artificial roses.

One marker commemorates "beloved father" Fernando Estrada, another brother Tadashi Nakata, and a clump of weathered pinwheels stand sentry over Jeffery Warren Lansdown, who died in 1966 at 5 years old.

In a small building at the burial site, adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, lines of metal shelves reach 10 feet to the ceiling, packed with brown plastic bins, each the size of a cigar box. The containers are labeled with the name of the person whose ashes are inside and the date of cremation.

Nearby, two gray filing cabinets hold hundreds of tiny envelopes, which contain the remains of infants. It took cemetery employees more than five hours to empty the ashes of this year's 1,687 individuals into their shared resting place.

The little-publicized service doesn't usually draw many observers.

At Wednesday's service, fewer than 20 people gathered by the mound of earth capped by a marker labeled "2002." There is a delay between the time people are cremated and buried, as the county waits for relatives to come forward. Aides to County Supervisor Don Knabe attended, along with reporters, and Knabe sent a wreath of white chrysanthemums and yellow daisies.

As Manly scattered mum petals on the dirt, he blessed the "unclaimed and seemingly forgotten" people laid to rest. "We continue to lend dignity to lives otherwise alone," Manly said, then recited the 23rd Psalm.

"This is part of my Christmas," Manly said after the service, explaining why he supplements his regular job ministering to hospital patients and staff and comforting the bereaved with this duty. "It makes my whole season to make sure these people were given an honorable commitment service."

Albert Gaskin, the cemetery caretaker, has helped look after thousands of the county's deceased residents for more than 38 years. He keeps fastidious records in two large books of all the individuals in his care, and aids families trying to claim a loved one as their own.

"This is our job," Gaskin said. "We try to do it the best we can. I don't think I could sleep at night if I didn't" honor these individuals with respect.

Hardly any members of the public attend the anonymous interments, and relatives are even rarer. But Georgeson waited all year for the service -- e-mailing Manly for eight months to pin down the date -- flew down and stayed overnight simply to be there.

Georgeson headed to the cemetery Wednesday morning, but stuck in traffic and wending through construction sites, he arrived just as Manly concluded the brief memorial service for those buried this year. After the small group of county staffers had dispersed, Manly and Georgeson repaired to a shady corner of the cemetery to honor William D. Georgeson, 28 years after his death. That year, 1,048 people were buried with him.

"Faith is very important to me," said Georgeson, who grew up in Santa Monica. "What is closure in faith? It's sending someone off, even if it's late, in God's good grace."

susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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