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Ashes of the nameless and unclaimed buried in L.A. County ritual

A simple ceremony is held at the county crematory and cemetery. The chaplain presiding says it is a service like no other, with no grieving families, no personal histories, not even names to read.

December 08, 2011|By Hailey Branson-Potts and Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times
  • Josephine Burns, right, who helps serve the poor at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen on skid row, prays at the Los Angeles County Cemetery and Crematory
Josephine Burns, right, who helps serve the poor at the Los Angeles Catholic… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

They are the unidentified, the estranged, those whose loved ones just couldn't afford to bury them.

In a simple yet poignant ceremony Wednesday near a busy Boyle Heights intersection, the ashes of more than 1,600 people who had never been identified or whose bodies were never claimed were buried in a single grave.

The mass burial has become a custom each December at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery. This year's ceremony was attended by just a few, none of whom knew the deceased.

The Rev. Chris Ponnet, a chaplain at County-USC Medical Center, led the service for "the nameless and the named but unclaimed" — 1,639 bodies in all.

Interfaith burial rites and prayers were included, with readings from the Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian traditions. The ceremony concluded with the Serenity Prayer, Psalm 23 and a blessing of hands over the burial site.

"I think it's commendable that the county doesn't bury them in the dead of the night," Ponnet said. "It says we have a depth of humanity."

Ponnet, who has led the service for four years, said it is like no other. There are no grieving families, no personal histories or even names to read.

"The disconnect becomes the problem," he said.

For Ponnet, the burial is always personal.

The chaplain said he has met and spent time with people who will someday probably be among those whose ashes are interred in the common grave. Many, he said, know that they will probably die alone.

Albert Gaskin, the county's cemetery caretaker, said he's been to more than 30 of the annual burials. Each has an emotional tug.

"It's hard, especially when you have to cremate babies," he said. "Off the top of my head, there are about 300 babies this year from hospitals around the county, with families who can't afford to bury them."

Bodies at the county morgue are kept in storage for two to three years before being sent to the common grave, according to the coroner's office. There currently are 5,199 people on the coroner's unclaimed persons list.

County-USC has been conducting the burials since 1896.

About 20 people attended the ceremony Wednesday on a hill overlooking 1st and Lorena streets. Each year, a new mass grave is marked with a roughly 4-by-4 inch plaque inscribed simply with the year.

Sometimes, family members discover too late that a loved one was buried in the grave. A few small markers with individual names are scattered throughout the cemetery, placed next to the plaques.

A marker for a 23-year-old named Dennis Riley is near the 1981 grave; at the nearby 1978 burial site is a marker for Daniel Westhart, 22. Gaskin said he knows at least one family that visits a grave several times a year, leaving flowers.

"I'm not here for a specific person," said Ed Pilolla, 39, of Torrance. "I came … just to pay some respect, give some recognition to those who officially have no recognition," he said.

Pilolla attended with six friends from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which runs a soup kitchen on skid row and a hospitality house in Boyle Heights.

"A lot of people who came to our soup kitchen — in poor health or estranged from their family — probably have ended up here," said Ann Boden, 56.

"You have the 1% at the top," Boden said. "This is the 1% at the bottom."

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