National News

‘A Witness That They Were Here’: Los Angeles Honors 1,457 of Its Unclaimed Dead

Posted December 7, 2018 7:58 a.m. EST

LOS ANGELES — They are the forgotten people of Los Angeles — 1,457 people, to be exact. Old, poor, homeless, babies born premature and abandoned.

They may have died alone, but they were buried together, in a mass grave, and were honored together this week in an interfaith ceremony that has been an annual ritual in Los Angeles for more than a century.

On a chilly Wednesday morning, on a green hillside in Boyle Heights and just as the country was paying tribute to former President George H.W. Bush, Los Angeles County honored what it calls its “unclaimed dead.”

“I think it is appropriate that on the same day that we mourn the loss of a commander in chief, we also mourn the loss of individuals whose deaths did not receive national attention, or much attention at all, but whose lives were no less worthy of our recognition,” Janice Hahn, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said at the service.

The county does not have to do this, but the tradition, which dates back to 1896, has become a sacred event for the many county workers — coroners, researchers — whose job it is to investigate how people die in Los Angeles. Their work is a long process of figuring out who these people were and if there are loved ones looking for them. Nearly all of the forgotten Angelenos honored this year died in 2015 and in most cases a relative was found but for whatever reason — financial hardship, estrangement — they did not want to claim the remains.

The county keeps a list online of each person’s name, date of birth, date of death, and the date of cremation. All were cremated and some lived long lives: Maria Bulgier was 103 when she died; Grace Wetzel, 92. Others have no names. Baby Boy Manor is listed as being born and having died on the same day: Oct. 6, 2015. The county keeps remains for three years, and if no one claims them they are buried in the mass grave and honored with a ceremony on the first Wednesday of December.

“Some of these individuals were homeless, many were poor, some were newborn babies, and tragically many of them have no loved ones to grieve for them,” Hahn said.

She continued, “At one point, these people had parents. At one point these people had friends. At one point, these people laughed and loved and cried like the rest of us.”

For a big, sprawling region like Los Angeles County, the ceremony is also an annual exercise in community — many members of the public return, year after year — in a place that can often feel isolating. Some 200 people attended this year.

Stefan Timmermans, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches how people die and how communities grieve, began attending several years ago as part of his work. He has spent time with workers at the medical examiner’s office, diving into files and going on ride-alongs with coroners. But he has kept attending the ceremony because he found it personally meaningful.

“I just find it also very moving and very touching that people come together around this, and there’s something very powerful about stepping up to the plate, taking time from LA traffic and your everyday life,” he said. “It contrasts very strongly with the abandonment of these people.”

He said the ceremony was “sort of like an antidote to the isolation and alienation you can have in big cities, which is reflected in the many unclaimed, about 1,500 in LA County every year.”

Phillip Gruber, who works in health services for the county, said he had been meaning to come for many years and finally did this year, “to see how our society finds a way to honor people who have been apart.”

“Our highest ideal is to treat each other with dignity and respect no matter who you are,” he said.

Reflecting the diversity of Los Angeles, there were representatives of many spiritual traditions at the ceremony: Christian, Jewish, Native American, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist. A man with an oboe played Bach and a choir sang “Amazing Grace.” Those gathered placed flowers on the grave site, on a plot of land that has long been a final resting place for the forgotten of Los Angeles: More than a decade ago, the century-old remains of Chinese laborers were discovered nearby as workers were digging a tunnel for the extension of the city’s subway.

Walking back to the parking lot after the ceremony, Mary Bonderove, who came from Whittier to attend for the first time, had tears in her eyes.

“Every life matters,” she said.

Her friend Elena DeGarmo, a retired accountant, has been coming for several years.

“Every life deserves someone to witness the end of it and be a witness that they were here,” she said. “In LA, between homelessness and poverty, people just get tossed away.”

In a column published this week in The Los Angeles Times, Timmermans wrote of the anonymous lives of the city’s forgotten.

“Their stories won’t be told: family strife, alienation, perhaps addiction, poverty or violence in a big city,” he wrote.

“These aren’t happy Hollywood endings,” he continued. “But at least when these people die, Los Angeles doesn’t abandon them.”