They had been sitting on a shelf in the crematorium for three years. They waited for someone to claim them, to take them to a crypt for eternal rest among family or bring them home to a cozy mantle above a fireplace or to be sprinkled over their favorite quiet spot. They waited while a county employee searched for someone, anyone, who might know them, who might want them. For three long years, they waited. No one came. Each with a story, each with a mother and father, now buried together en-mass under a grave-marker that bore only the year they died: 2012.
The grave-site is in a grassy corner of the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. A violinist from the LA Philharmonic welcomed mourners with “Meditation” from “Thais” by Jules Massenet. The media stood poised and ready behind their large video cameras atop man-sized tripods; still cameras with long lenses hung around necks and notepads were held by ready hands.
They’re here for a story, she thought. We all are. This is odd. It doesn’t make sense.
Finding a spot beside a tree, she stood where she was close enough to hear but where she could observe the entire scene. The urns had previously been covered with dirt and the year marker had been placed. A giant wreath on a stand stood at the opposite end of the grave marker among a few potted flowers and plants. A green plastic border outlined, presumably, the length and width of the ashes below.
One thousand three hundred seventy nine people are under an area normally allotted to one casket.
Roughly 150 men and women stood with the media around the grave. The gatherers were there to offer final respect to people they had never met. Pseudo friends and family, stand-ins, for the real friends and family who might have been there if only…
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe began by thanking the quiet crowd for “attending the annual ceremony that has been taking place since 1896. We are surprised and happy there are so many people here today. Just two years ago only a couple dozen mourners came.”
Psalm 23 was read in English by Father Chris Ponnet and in Hebrew by Rabbi Avivah Erlick. Prayers were offered in Spanish, Korean, and Fijian. There were readings from the Koran and from Buddhist and Hindu literature as well as a poem about life in Los Angeles. Raquel Salinas sang the Native American Indian Traveling Song while photographers took pictures of the sun shining through her dress as she drummed. After each reading, the crowd was led in a chant: “You are not forgotten. You are remembered. We hold you in our hearts.” The mourners were invited to take a handful of flower petals to sprinkle over the grave before leaving. Photographers hugged the ground to capture the petals falling from strangers hands to the dirt.
Of the one thousand three hundred seventy nine people buried in the mass grave, there were no personal stories or remarks about any of them. No names were read. Nothing was told about the places of birth or death or the life in-between. Not even categories or statistics were given about who, exactly, was under there and why.
The county calls them the unclaimed dead. They are people who die alone in hospitals, homes, long-term care facilities, on the street, or in jail. They are disintegrated to ash and put in a box on the shelf; babies, into an envelope. Those that sit unclaimed are those with no living relatives, or who have relatives that can’t be located, or who have relatives that don’t want them or cannot afford to bury or claim them. At the third anniversary of unclaimed-ness, they are blended together and buried as a collective.
What should we call them? Unknowns who made mistakes? Unknowns who ran with the wrong crowd? Unknowns who couldn’t get out of their own way? Or, should we say they were human beings who deserved our attention before it got this far?
We came to give them “a dignified burial and recognition,” but did we dignify and recognize them when they were alive? Did we visit them in the hospital? Talk to them on the street? Feed them? Clothe them? Tell them they mattered? Did we leave them alone in life, only to come three years after death to tell them, “You are not forgotten, you are remembered, and we hold you in our hearts?” Is this ceremony more for us than it is for them?
Tara Schiro is the author of No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live Now Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble www.TaraSchiro.com