Albert Gaskin, a caretaker at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, holds… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
A half a dozen mourners gathered at Forest Lawn cemetery in Cypress on Friday to bid farewell to a woman they never knew.
Jean Comstock died Sept. 24, a 79-year-old divorced woman without heirs. Comstock, a retired Long Beach city minute clerk, had wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn but couldn't afford it. Los Angeles County cremated her and stored the ashes at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Eventually the ashes would have been buried in a pauper's grave with the rest of the county's unclaimed dead.
But Long Beach City Clerk Larry Herrera, 57, read about Comstock's death in The Times and asked around about her. She had retired in 1992 after 15 years with the city. People remembered her as a kind and friendly woman who volunteered as a poll worker after she retired. That was good enough for Herrera.
He took up a collection among city workers and associates. By this week, 23 people had donated $1,625, enough for a niche at Forest Lawn.
Lawyer Trent Marcus of Fountain Valley volunteered to help Herrera get a court order to take custody of Comstock's remains. Herrera picked up the ashes at Evergreen Cemetery on Monday, taking time to examine the muddy pauper's grave where Comstock might otherwise have been buried.
A career public servant and native Angeleno, Herrera has served as Long Beach city clerk for the last eight years. He has two grandchildren and another on the way.
"There's so much hardship in the world," he said as he prepared to head back to Long Beach, planning to visit his 83-year-old mother along the way. "I feel real lucky that I've had a good life."
Herrera contacted Ken McKenzie, owner of McKenzie Mortuary Services in Long Beach, who donated funeral services Friday.
John Dietz, 67, a Long Beach community activist, was among the first to arrive. Next was Peggy Chambers, 59, who works in the city's purchasing department, and Marcus. Connie Sziebl, an employee in county Supervisor Don Knabe's Signal Hill field office who regularly attends the annual burial of the unclaimed dead, joined them as they set off for the mausoleum.
They took their seats in the small room, its ceiling open to the cloudy sky. The marble walls were full of niches, and Comstock's was marked with a piece of blue tape. Her name would be added later. Her ashes sat before mourners in a gold-toned box on two small pillars, surrounded by yellow lilies and gerbera daisies.
The Rev. Michael C. Brown of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach led them in a round of "Amazing Grace" before delivering a brief eulogy. Herrera joined in at the end. Comstock's death had touched him and many others, he said.
"If she's listening, I want her to know that we're here," he said.
The mourners filed out, but Herrera lingered. He watched a maintenance worker climb up to Comstock's niche, pry the cover off, place her ashes inside, reseal it and remove the blue tape.
Finally Herrera rose. It was time to return to the office. His work with Comstock was done.
"Hopefully," he said, "it will make me a better person someday."