Despite rain, L.A. County turns out to remember its unclaimed dead

Dev Kumar, with son William and daughter Beatrice, stands during a ceremony to remember the 1,457 people cremated in 2016 in Los Angeles County whose remains have gone unclaimed for the past three years.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Most of the people who attended Los Angeles County’s ceremony Wednesday for the unclaimed dead didn’t know each other, much less the 1,457 individuals buried together at the Boyle Heights cemetery under the plaque marked 2016.

Still, despite pelting rain that forced them to huddle under canopies and umbrellas, they stopped to remember those who died and whose cremated remains have been in the county’s possession for the past three years.

Father Chris Ponnet, director of spiritual care at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, began the interfaith service — which he has led for 15 years — with a reference to the Mr. Rogers film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”


The film asks the question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Ponnet said. “That’s what we are celebrating today. These were our neighbors.”

For Catherine Morris, 85, some of the dead literally were her neighbors. Morris volunteers full time at Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which has a ministry on Skid Row. Morris is sure that some of the people buried in the county crematorium cemetery were people she knew.

For Morris, the ceremony is a reflection both of L.A.’s shortcomings as a community and its heart.

The dead buried here go unclaimed for various reasons: They lost touch with their families before they died, they have no next of kin, their family could not pay the county cremation fee.

The fact that people go unclaimed highlights the number of Angelenos who don’t have access to the services they need, Morris said. That forces them to make hard choices, including relinquishing loved ones to a common grave because they lack the money to pay for funeral services.

Chaplain Fr. Chris Ponnet welcomes people during a ceremony to remember the 1,457 individuals cremated in 2016.
Chaplain Fr. Chris Ponnet welcomes people during a ceremony to remember the 1,457 individuals cremated in 2016.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Still, Morris said she is pleased the county holds a yearly ceremony to acknowledge the dead, and was happy with the large turnout on a wet day.

Josh Andujo sang a Tongva song and lit a bundle of sage as a blessing, shielding the smoke under an umbrella as he walked to the grave site. Rabbi Janet Madden recited Psalm 23 in English and in Hebrew; chaplains read the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, English and Tagalog; and a group chanted Buddhist texts. The Street Symphony Chamber Singers sang a hymn, a prayer and a song titled “The Road Home.”

As the scent of sage drifted through the cemetery, the Rev. Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder and Father John Greeley, chaplains at County-USC Medical Center, concluded the service with a call-and-response prayer that drew from the practice of remembering those who “were disappeared” during El Salvador’s civil war, Zehnder said.

The response, “Presente,” is like a roll call, Zehnder said. “It’s how we as a community are claiming them.”

We carry each child.

Each teenager.

Each adult.

Each immigrant far from home.

Each person without a home.

Each one who suffered violence, sickness, abuse.

Each one who lived with joy, who danced, who loved, who lived.


Honorary items are placed on the burial site of the 1,457 individuals cremated in 2016 whose remains have stayed in the county's possession for the past three years.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

In previous years, the county provided the names of the individuals being buried. Gena Brenan, 44, from Torrance, was dismayed the county did not do so this year.

Brenan said she liked to look through the names of the dead to get a sense of who they were, whether they were old or young.

“It makes it more personal, even if you didn’t know them,” she said.

Without their names, the dead are reduced to a number, Brenan said.

After the ceremony, Grayson Albrizze, 6, of Arcadia placed three gemstones by the plaque for the recently buried, next to a unicorn rubber duck, a handful of coins from the United Kingdom and bouquets of flowers.

Blue sodalite for peace, pink calcite for love and tangerine quartz “for life energy to wish them well into the next life,” said Grayson’s father, Jeff, 59.

Jeff excuses his son from school to attend the ceremony every year. They will go afterward to La Placita church by Olvera Street to light candles for the departed.

“It’s important for me to teach my son to care about others,” Albrizze said.

“Here in L.A. it’s so easy to feel isolated, disconnected,” he said. Seeing some of the same people at the ceremony year after year gives him a sense of community, as well as love and gratitude for life.