At a Boyle Heights cemetery, a time to mourn the unclaimed

At a Boyle Heights cemetery, a time to mourn the unclaimed
More than 150 people turned out Wednesday for a memorial service for L.A. County's unclaimed dead at the county cemetery in Boyle Heights. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The mourners, along with county employees and members of the media, formed an oval around the gravesite.

A violinist from the Los Angeles Philharmonic played "Méditation" from "Thaïs" by Jules Massenet. A yellow butterfly dipped in and out as brakes whined on the street below. A Gold Line train chimed every five minutes or so.


But the crowd of more than 150 that gathered at the Los Angeles County Cemetery in Boyle Heights remained mostly quiet while paying their respects to the unclaimed dead.

The county has been holding such annual ceremonies since the late 1800s. This week, the remains of 1,379 individuals were laid to rest in one small plot with a single stone marker reading "2012" — the year they were cremated.

For the last two years, The Times has published a database detailing what is known about the men and women, the teenagers and babies who died in hospitals, nursing homes, private residences and on the street.

Authorities know who most of them are. This year, only 11 were nameless.

During the ceremony Wednesday, faith leaders prayed in English, Hebrew, Spanish, Korean and Fijian. Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu texts were read. A woman sang a Native American song and tapped a drum. A man and woman read a poem for Los Angeles. After each prayer and reading, the mourners chanted: "You are not forgotten. You are remembered. We hold you in our hearts."

One woman drove from San Diego to attend the memorial and to search the records, looking for her brother.

He had been a professional ballet dancer, working for Disney and later in Europe. He returned to their hometown in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1980. A few months later, he disappeared.

"I always knew that he would either be in New York or L.A.," Cherry Williamson, 66, said. After some investigation, she said, her sister found that their brother, Wesley Williamson, had lived on Catalina street in Koreatown.

On Wednesday, Cherry Williamson saw his name in the book of the unclaimed dead. He had died in 2005.

"We found him," she said with a smile.

County Supervisor Don Knabe, who regularly attends the event, said Wednesday that he was happy to see such a large turnout. In 2012, just two dozen people attended.

"They are human beings," he said of the unclaimed. "They deserve a dignified burial and recognition."

The service ended after about 30 minutes. When the camera crews and most of the crowd had left, a woman placed a bouquet of flowers on the grave and cried into the ground.


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