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1,464 unclaimed dead in L.A. County honored in memorial service

Rose petals cover the final resting area for the remains of 1,464 individuals during a burial at Evergreen Memorial Park.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Community leaders, chaplains and observers gathered on a chilly Wednesday morning in Boyle Heights to remember more than 1,400 people left unclaimed at the county’s crematory.

The ashes were buried under fresh soil covered with flowers at Evergreen Memorial Park. The grave was surrounded by teal sheets. One small stone marked the grave, reading 2010, the year they died.

Los Angeles County has buried its unclaimed dead in plots at the corner of 1st and Lorena streets 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.

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“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 County-USC Medical Center and has led the service in recent years.

“Ideally, we wouldn’t have to have unnamed burials,” he 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 them.”

Fewer people were buried this year than in years past, officials said. In 2012, 1,656 people were buried. Officials attributed the drop to increased coverage of the event by media.

Rosa Saca, a spokeswoman for County-USC Medical Center, said about two-thirds of the unclaimed came from the county morgue and the rest mostly came from the coroner. About 400 were released to families and mortuaries.

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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.

Mufflers from cars on streets below buzzed and planes roared overhead. But people at the ceremony hovered close to the grave and remained still.

A few people came out to remember those who had died. Karen Fulks remembered her friend who died in 2008. She held a pink rose she cut from her garden.

Fulks, who is a professional organizer and lives in Highland Park, said her friend’s family didn’t have the money to get his remains from the county.

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“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 have died.

“Some of these patients are people that come through,” said Selma Calmes, a medical doctor and anesthesia consultant with the coroner’s office.

“We need to do more to give services to these people,” she added, saying more needs to be done to take care of them before they die.

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Albert Gaskin, the county cemetery’s caretaker, said he enjoys preparing the ground for the burial.

“I look at it like I’m helping someone else,” said Gaskin, who is 73. “And I’m glad to do it. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that I haven’t retired.”

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 important to allow “a dignified burial for remains of people who don’t have anyone.”

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“I can’t imagine at the end being alone,” he said.

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Twitter: @gaufre

jon.schleuss@latimes.com


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