Homeless in Life, Nameless in Death

THE OLDEST cemetery in Los Angeles, opened in 1877, is Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Some of the most well known families in Los Angeles — including the Boyles, for whom the neighborhood is named — are buried there. So are thousands of Angelenos whose names we will never know.

As L.A.'s homeless population has grown, so has the number of homeless deaths. The coroner can usually identify the bodies, but most of the time their families don’t collect the remains. So once a year, in autumn, the county cremates and buries them in a single grave at Evergreen. Thousands of dead men and women are marked only by small plaques displaying the year they died.

There are dozens of small plaques scattered across the southeast corner of the cemetery, far from the center and its majestic views of downtown. The earliest I saw was from 1962, the latest from 2001. So I asked a cemetery caretaker — a tall, elderly man with a bad limp, straight out of central casting, who didn’t want to give his name — where the more recent graves were. The cemetery keeps people’s remains for four years, he said, in case anyone wants to claim them, although few do. They were in the nearby crematorium, a small off-white building up the hill.

After some cajoling, he agreed to let me see the storage room where they’re kept. We went around back and he opened the door to a dark, musty closet whose shelves were lined with what looked like books. But they weren’t books, they were boxes — small maroon boxes, nine to a shelf, row upon row of them, each with a name neatly written on the front. There were hundreds of boxes, perhaps more than 1,000. The closet can hold remains for only the last two years, so he showed me the overflow, a less tidy room where thousands more boxes were stacked high.

This fall, workers will take almost 1,600 of the containers from the shelves, discard the nametags and pour their contents into a newly dug grave in the same out-of-sight corner of Evergreen Cemetery. (They reuse the boxes.) A plaque reading “2002" will be placed in the ground on top of the grave. A handful of people will be there, including a chaplain, some workers from the morgue — and, if they allow it, me.

I don’t know how I feel about this modest ceremony. Yes, it’s something. No, it’s not nearly enough. Writing about homelessness for The Times’ editorial page for the last several months, I’ve developed a theory as to why this city has more homeless people than anywhere else in the country: because we ignore them. Whether we’re walking through downtown or making policy in City Hall, the easiest thing to do is to pretend they don’t exist.

Somehow, these anonymous graves show me that as much as anything else. We know who these people were, but we bury them nameless. How much would it take to add their names to their gravestones? Maybe that one small gesture would give them some dignity in death that we never gave them in life.


Daniel Costello