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Ceremony marks mass burial of 1,656 in Los Angeles County

December 5, 2012 |  2:52 pm

Mourners at mass burial. Credit: Associated Press

In a simple ceremony Wednesday, about two dozen people huddled over a single grave holding the ashes of more than 1,600 people whose bodies were never claimed by family members in Los Angeles County.

As dense fog enveloped the quiet hill overlooking a busy thoroughfare in Boyle Heights and with the smell of burning sage hanging in the air, county officials, soup kitchen volunteers, chaplains and a few mourners prayed over the buried ashes of 1,656 people.

The mass burial is a custom each December at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery.

Bodies at the county morgue — including the those of the homeless and those whose families simply could not afford to bury or cremate them — are kept in storage for two to three years before being sent to the common grave, according to the coroner's office. Most of those who were buried this week died in 2009.

The Rev. Chris Ponnet, a chaplain at County-USC Medical Center who has led the service for the last five years, said the ceremony differs from other services: There are no personal histories or even names to read, and rarely is there a grieving family.

After a few humble words, Ponnet stepped aside for burial rites from multiple faiths, including readings from Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions recited in Korean, Spanish and English. In Native American tradition, a barefoot woman chanted and beat a canvas drum, turning in the four directions of the compass, the ritual briefly drowning out the grate of the buses and trains on the other side of the cemetery fence.

The service concluded with the Serenity Prayer, Psalm 23 and the singing of the hymn "Be Not Afraid."

Each year, a new mass grave is marked with a roughly 4-by-4 inch plaque inscribed simply with the year. County-USC has conducted the burials since 1896.

Sometimes, family members discover too late that a loved one was buried in the grave. A few small markers with individual names are scattered throughout the cemetery, placed next to the plaques.

There are currently 5,369 people on the coroner's unclaimed persons list.

“All of these folks represent the work that we do for the community, identify bodies, trying to reunite families,” said L.A. County Coroner Craig R. Harvey. “It's sad that a lot of it comes down to the almighty dollar.”

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-- Rosanna Xia and Hailey Branson-Potts in Boyle Heights

Photo: Mourners at mass burial. Credit: Associated Press

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