L.A.’s Unclaimed Dead

It’s an incongruent Los Angeles morning as the radio blares Nat King Cole’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while the mountains alongside the southland freeways blaze with fire. I’m rushing to join a small annual end-of-year gathering at the grassy burial plot tucked sideways to the Los Angeles crematorium, on the city’s east side in Boyle Heights.

Don’t let the name crematorium over-gruesome you. In reality, the old county building on East First Street showcases scores of well-pruned rose bushes, massive vintage trees and scattered benches for reflection. Outside, its vibe is almost serene.

Each year since 1896, the county’s unclaimed dead are buried right here at county service and expense at the Los Angeles County Crematorium Cemetery, underneath a stamped brass plaque to mark their communal existence. And each year, hundreds of Angelenos (though I’ve met people from as far away as San Francisco and Nevada) gather to pay their final respects to the tens of hundreds who die each 12 months inside L.A.’s borders — alone, unwanted, ungrieved and unclaimed.

As far as is known, Los Angeles is the only county in the United States that provides such a service for its part of the more than 40,000 unclaimed bodies of those who die each year across the country. It’s not something the county has to do, but rather something it chooses to do. And with this choice those of us at this send-off gathering today become, in essence, a cloud of witnesses for the souls who perished so alone inside our southland home.

Just who are these 1,495 unclaimed dead we gather to bury this 2017? Each expired in 2014 (the county waits three years before burial), and they flood in from a plethora of area hospitals, nursing homes, and apartment buildings; from the streets and back alleys and underneath bridges. They are of all ages (including swells of newborns and children) sexes, nationalities, races and religions. It’s a blurry sad snapshot of Los Angeles’ underbelly.

(Oddly, this number remains relatively stable from year to year, with only small dips higher or lower; no one knows why. Likewise, only a very few people — perhaps a handful each year — are in fact buried as John Doe and Jane Doe, i.e. bodies without identification prior to burial. At the 2017 gathering, that number was five.)

What’s their trajectory? Having died inside the county, each body is held 30 days in the coroner’s crypt. Since no kin claims them, they are driven to the crematorium of aged brick smokestacks, where a funeral director presides over their flesh-to-ash. The disintegration process takes about an hour. Approximately 20 to 30 bodies arrive at the crematorium every two to three weeks.

“Today, 1,495 souls who had no one to grieve their loss, but had lives likely very much like ours, are being placed to their rest,” intones the leader of the interfaith congregation.

Adult remains are kept in small brown plastic boxes (babies’ ashes are stored in small paper bags, neatly folded on top like wallets, and placed in metal drawers) for up to three years for families to claim their final remains. For them, no one came.

Reasons for this vary: family feuds, transport issues, the inability to pay the roughly $400 in city or mortuary fees, and relational voids. More than a few simply had no one to care enough. One of the county’s investigators whose job it is to track down loved ones tells me more and more people seem to simply want the death certificate to gain access to any bank accounts, deeds or property.

The ceremony this December morning is conducted under a hot winter sun. Atop a square of turquoise blankets rest bouquet-ed handfuls of random plants — cornflower, iris, daffodil. Scattered are bowls with what looks like incense. Handwritten notes and envelopes remain unread.

“Today, 1,495 souls who had no one to grieve their loss, but had lives likely very much like ours, are being placed to their rest,” intones the leader of the interfaith congregation. “They all had parents, friends, loved ones, joy, pain, sadness, dreams, and we in Los Angeles say with respect that they mattered.”

Since each died in 2014, a chaplain asks us to recall the global zeitgeist that year: the East African Ebola epidemic, ISIS on the rise in the Middle East, the Ferguson protests, the Russian Sochi Winter Olympics, everything pre-Trump.

Each year since 1896, the county’s unclaimed dead are buried right here at county service and expense at the Los Angeles County Crematorium Cemetery.

The 27th psalm is read by a Catholic purple-sashed priest holding a bowl of incense; the 23rd psalm is cantored by a female rabbi. A gaggle of local supervisors and politicians briefly speak. An ad hoc choir made up of the city’s homeless stand off to the side, blessing the gathering with soft hymns.

The Lord’s Prayer is sweetly read in Korean, Fiji, Spanish and English. There are Hindu chants, Buddhist chants, vibrant Muslim prayers. A Native American woman drums then chants while sage-ing the ground and air and praying aloud, “We release you … with much joy.”

“To claim” from the French, clamare (to shout), means literally to call out. Lazarus engulfed with sores called out at the wealthy man’s gates; Anne Frank from the pages of her teenage diary; today’s unclaimed with their mute aloneness, all beg: See me, acknowledge me. It’s so fundamentally human.

I can’t help but think we as a collective band of citizens here in the City of Angels beseech the most right, most protective angels with this yearly insurance policy of honoring our unbidden dead. Who knows what dark tragedies of the coming year we avert with this simple yet profound action?

Perhaps in life we can’t see and care for every broken heart and body within our streets and alleys, but in death we can and do shout them to a happier place.

Says the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.

I hope they rest now where many lilies blow.

Janet Kinosian is a veteran Southern California-based journalist and author who writes for The Los Angeles Times and whose work has appeared in scores of national and international publications, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Reader’s Digest. The excerpt of the poem by Hopkins is from “Heaven-Haven.”

This article was posted on November 2, 2018.