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Los Angeles County virtually mourns its unclaimed dead

Father Chris Ponne blesses a grave.
Father Chris Ponnet, director of spiritual care at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, blesses a grave during the annual Burial of the Unclaimed Dead ceremony on Wednesday.
(Bryan Chan / Los Angeles County)

A chorus of prayers in different languages and soothing guitar notes arose in Boyle Heights amid the morning fog.

Los Angeles County officials and interfaith leaders gathered around a single grave Wednesday morning to pay respect to 1,780 unclaimed dead who died in 2018, almost two years before the pandemic set in, creating more dead.

The dead of 2018 would get their final resting place in an L.A. County-owned plot on the edge of Evergreen Cemetery, the city’s oldest.

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“We don’t know the life stories of the people we are burying today, but we know many of them were homeless. Some were children. Some were immigrants. Almost all of them were poor,” said County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

In a 30-minute ceremony, a Gabrelino-Tongva burned silver sage at each grave corner to “open the space in a good way” and offered a traveling song to help souls make their journey. Four chaplains offered prayers in Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Spanish and English.

“We join in this brief moment to pause in your own life in your own spirit or energy,” said Father Chris Ponnet, director of spiritual care at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. “A place where you might even fear of being forgotten over relationships that need to be healed. For that reason we have gathered, pause and music, song and word to say that they are remembered, that they are honored and that they will never be forgotten.”

In its 125th year, the annual Burial of the Unclaimed Dead ceremony typically brings hundreds of people together on a December morning to honor these individuals. But for the second year, they did so virtually because of the pandemic, which has claimed thousands of lives.

“This has been a difficult year and it feels divisive and full of tension and full of disagreements on so many different realms,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County Health Services Department director. “But I’m grateful that in this ceremony, year after year, we can come together ... to give them dignity in death and to recognize the value and dignity of their life.”

In L.A. County, bodies not claimed from the morgue and coroner’s office are cremated and officials hold onto the cremains for three years for someone to claim them and reimburses the county for its services. If the ashes aren’t picked up, the county buries them in a single grave.

About 100 viewers watched the livestream with several joining in prayer and sharing names of those who have died in the comments section. Others recalled when they once attended the ceremony in person.

“I normally attend every year in person and it has broken my heart knowing I couldn’t be there last year,” commented Melissa MacKinnon. “This year I was able to pay my respects to those that mattered in this world and that means so much to me.”

“Thank you for this beautiful ceremony. May we gather in person next year!” wrote Louise Steinman.


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