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Burial held for unclaimed ashes of 1,464 people in L.A. County

Community leaders and chaplains are among those attending the service in Boyle Heights for those who died in 2010.

By Jon Schleuss

9:31 PM PST, December 4, 2013

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Community leaders, chaplains and dozens of others gathered on a chilly Wednesday morning in Boyle Heights to remember more than 1,400 people whose remains were left unclaimed at the county's crematory.

Their ashes were buried in fresh soil covered with flowers, the mass grave surrounded by teal-colored sheets. One small stone marked the grave, reading 2010, the year they died. 


FOR THE RECORD:
Unclaimed dead: An article and graphic in the Dec. 5 LATExtra section about Los Angeles County’s unclaimed dead incorrectly stated that the remains of 1,563 people were buried in 2004 and 1,798 were buried in 2006. The unclaimed remains of 1,563 people who died in 2004 were buried in 2008 in the Los Angeles County cemetery. The unclaimed remains of 1,798 people who died in 2006 were buried in 2009.

Los Angeles County has buried its unclaimed dead in plots at the corner of 1st and Lorena street since the late 1800s. The crematory processes about six bodies a day and keeps the remains for two to three years before burying them, officials said.

This year, the county buried the cremated remains of 1,464 people.

"We're trying to remember and honor these people who had a story and a history," said Rev. Chris Ponnet, who is a chaplain with Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and has led the service in recent years. 

"Ideally, we wouldn't have to have unnamed burials," Ponnet said. "The county does the diligent search and some people we find and some people say they can't afford [a burial] or they're disconnected" from the deceased.

Fewer people were buried this year than in any of the last nine years, officials said. In 2004, 1,563 people were buried, and in 2006 — the year with the largest number since 2004 — 1,798 were interred. Last year, there were 1,656. Officials attributed the drop in unclaimed remains to increased coverage of the event by media.

Rosa Saca, a spokeswoman for County-USC Medical Center, said about two-thirds of the unclaimed remains this year came from the county morgue and the most of the rest from the coroner. The ashes of about 400 people have been released to families and mortuaries.  

The sun warmed the crowd as the ceremony began shortly after 10 a.m. Chaplains from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths offered prayers and blessings. Incense was lighted and sage filled the air.

Cars could be heard on streets below and planes roared overhead while people at the ceremony remained close to the grave and still.

A few people came out to remember those whose ashes were buried previously. Karen Fulks held a pink rose she cut from her garden for a friend who died in 2008. Fulks, who lives in Highland Park, said her friend's family didn't have the money to retrieve his remains from the county.

"I don't think anybody should go without some recognition," she said. 

A woman who works for the Los Angeles County coroner's office attended with a friend for the second year in a row to remember those who had died.

"Some of these patients are people that come through" the coroner's office, said Selma Calmes, a medical doctor and anesthesia consultant with the coroner. "We need to do more to give services to these people."

County Supervisor Don Knabe said attending the annual ceremony is more about respect than responsibility. 

"The county is the ultimate safety net for those in need," he said, adding that it's import to allow "a dignified burial for remains of people who don't have anyone."

jon.schleuss@latimes.com