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Ashes of 1,639 people buried in common grave in L.A. ceremony

December 7, 2011 |  1:58 pm

The ashes of more than 1,600 people who have never been identified or whose bodies were never claimed were buried Wednesday morning in a simple ceremony that has become a poignant custom in Los Angeles each December.

The ashes were buried in a single grave at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

“The nameless and the named but unclaimed” -- 1,639 bodies in all -- include the homeless and the estranged, as well as those whose families simply could not afford to bury or cremate their bodies, said the Rev. Chris Ponnet, a chaplain at County-USC Medical Center who led the service.

Interfaith burial rites and prayers were read, including readings from Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian traditions. The ceremony concluded with the reading of the Serenity Prayer, Psalm 23 and a blessing of hands over the burial site.

“I think it’s commendable that the county doesn’t bury them in the dead of the night,” Ponnet said.

“It goes to a deeper part of the humanity of a society that doesn’t place remains just anywhere or nowhere,” he said. “It says we have a depth of humanity.”

Ponnet has led the service for four years. Unlike the other funerals he leads, there are no grieving families, no personal histories or even names to read.

“The disconnect becomes the problem,” he said.

For Ponnet, the burial is personal.

He said he has met and spent time with people who eventually will be among those whose ashes will be buried in the common grave. Many, he said, know beforehand that they will likely die alone, a death largely unnoticed.

Albert Gaskin, the county’s crematory caretaker, said he’s been to more than 30 of the annual burials. Each one, he said, has an emotional tug.

"It’s hard, especially when you have to cremate babies," he said. “Off the top of my head, there are about 300 babies this year from hospitals around the county, with families who can’t afford to bury them.”

About 20 people attended the ceremony on a hill overlooking the busy intersection at 1st and Lorena streets. Each year, the grave is marked with another 4-by-4 inch plaque inscribed simply with the year.

“I’m not here for a specific person,” said Ed Pilolla, 39, of Torrance. “I came with a couple friends, just to pay some respect, give some recognition to those who officially have no recognition,” he said.

Pilolla came with six friends from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which runs a soup kitchen in Skid Row and a hospitality house in Boyle Heights.

"A lot of people who came to our soup kitchen — in poor health or estranged from their family— probably have ended up here,” said Ann Boden, 56, of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

“You have the 1% at the top,” Boden said. “This is the 1% at the bottom.”

Bodies are kept in storage for two to three years before being sent to the common grave, according to the county coroner’s office. Those buried Wednesday were cremated in 2008.

The County-USC Medical Center has been conducting the burials since 1896.

There currently are 5,199 people on the county coroner’s unclaimed persons list.

“It was a really beautiful ceremony,” Pilolla said. “I’ll admit, it does make me feel better just being here.”


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Photo: Caretaker Albert Gaskin arranges flowers brought by a person attending the mass burial at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times