Survivors find peace as they claim remains once 'unwanted' in L.A. County

As of Dec. 2, remains left unclaimed from 2011 were those of 843 men, 431 women and 139 children

More than 1,400 people who were cremated in 2011 will be buried in one mass grave this week. These are L.A.'s unclaimed dead.

About 455 others who were cremated that year were claimed by relatives, friends and funeral homes, according to county records.

And at least 10 people's ashes have been claimed since The Times published a database of 2011's unclaimed dead in early November.

Will Perlis, 73, of West Hollywood, found his domestic partner Asenath Hammond in The Times' database and claimed her ashes just three days after seeing the article.

Right around the time Hammond was cremated in 2011, Perlis' mother had died in Florida. The county probably sent a notice, but "I was not exactly fully functional," he said.

"I kept looking to see if the unclaimed ashes would show up in the county database," he said. The county maintains an online database of unclaimed dead people, but it is only for coroner cases, which represent about a third of all unclaimed people in Los Angeles.

The only complete list is kept in a handwritten ledger at the county cemetery in Boyle Heights. The county plans to put the complete list online eventually, officials said.

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FOR THE RECORD: A photo caption with a previous version of this article said that the photo was taken at a funeral for unclaimed dead at Evergreen Memorial Park. The photo shows rose petals at a remembrance ceremony for L.A. County's unclaimed dead at Los Angeles County Cemetery.

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Perlis choked up, seeing the ledger. "There were just so many of them. It looked kind of lonely."

As of Dec. 2, there were 843 men left unclaimed from 2011. There are also 431 women, 137 babies and two other children.

If relatives can be found after the death, they're notified by the county. If the family doesn't or can't pick up the body through a mortuary, the county handles cremation and stores the ashes for about three years.

To claim ashes, a person needs to obtain a burial permit and take it to the Department of Decedent Affairs at L.A. County-USC Medical Center, along with a payment to reimburse the county for the cost of cremation, typically $352 or $466, depending on whether the body was transported or handled by the coroner.

Cynthia Brick of Chicago made three trips to Los Angeles to collect the belongings and ashes of Robert Dean, the brother of Brick's friend Larry Dean.

Brick's family has known Larry for about six years, since meeting him on a street corner after he was evicted. They helped him to get back on his feet, and now he's become part of the family.

In the decades leading up to Robert's death, Larry had lost touch with him. He finally found out that his brother, his last living relative, died after authorities contacted Brick.

The process for claiming the ashes was lengthy, she said. They held a memorial for Robert before they had them. Almost a year after Robert's death, though, Brick was finally able to pick up the ashes, in August 2012.

Claiming the remains took "willpower and perseverance and a lot of money," she said. If her family hadn't helped out, Robert's ashes would probably still be at the crematory, she said.

"I just think it's important to have that closure," she said. "It just felt funny for me — and I didn't really know Robert — just to leave him out there."

For others, the wait is even longer. Tina Williams' late boyfriend Jermaine Washington, whose ashes were still at the county crematory, came to her in a dream one night and said, "Nobody wants me."

"I know in his way, he was saying that wasn't right," said Williams, 32.

She had been with Washington for about 10 years and has a child, Jermaine Jr., with him. But when Washington passed away of an unknown illness, Williams was unable to collect his cremains because she was not legally married to him. His mother, whom she was not in contact with, was the next of kin.

Three years later, Williams called, and Washington's mother had never picked up the ashes. She was able to file a petition for a court order allowing her to take the cremains. Because she is low-income and living in transitional housing in Westmont, the county waived the fee.

When she finally held the box of his ashes, Williams said, she felt chills, then a wave of relief.

"He's home.… He's at peace," Williams said. "He's wanted."

The ceremony remembering the unclaimed dead from 2011 will be at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 10 at the L.A. County Cemetery, 3301 E 1st St. in Boyle Heights. Anyone wishing to claim remains should do so by Monday morning by calling L.A. County-USC Medical Center at 323-409-6899. 

jon.schleuss@latimes.com

taylor.goldenstein@latimes.com

maloy.moore@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

8:23 p.m.: This article was updated to include information on this year's remembrance ceremony and how to claim remains from the county.

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