Dust to dust

ONE DAY EACH December, Los Angeles County health officials bury the ashes of more than 1,500 people in a single, 7-foot-deep plot. They are the unclaimed and sometimes unidentified -- immigrants, drifters and homeless people. The annual ceremony, which is open to the public, is at historic Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, and it is always modest. A chaplain says a few words while a dozen or so mostly county staffers silently pay their respects.

Wednesday morning's ceremony, in which the lives of 1,687 people were honored in less than 15 minutes, should have been different. After all, this was the year the region's leaders seemingly woke up to the fact that they could no longer ignore the county's estimated 90,000 homeless people. In front of cameras and at news conferences, city and county officials loudly decried patient dumping on skid row, campaigned for an affordable housing bond and spoke at scores of heartfelt panel discussions about reversing Los Angeles' civic disgrace. On Monday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said: "This is the richest county in the richest state in the richest country in the history of the planet, yet almost 90,000 people do not have a roof over their heads. This is unacceptable."

Yet neither the mayor nor any other elected official from the city or county attended Wednesday's burial of the county's poorest.

Villaraigosa was out of town to herald the long-overdue restoration of the dried-up Owens River. Not a single City Council member was able to make it either; most were in Reno for a National League of Cities conference. Not a single county supervisor -- all well aware of the Evergreen ceremony, having held a moment of silence at their meeting on Tuesday -- bothered to show up. (To his credit, Supervisor Don Knabe sends several staff members to the burial each year.)

As he has for the last 30 years, county chaplain Phil Manly delivered a brief but poignant sermon, ensuring that the nearly 1,700 souls who were mostly forgotten or ignored late in life had just a few minutes of dignity in death. Maybe next year at least a few area leaders can spare 15 minutes of their time and join Manly.

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