Patricia Ramos keeps her gaze toward the ground while the ceremony starts at the annex of Evergreen Cemetery on First Street in Boyle Heights.
Just a few years ago it used to be that the “John Does” and “Jane Does” were buried there with no identification whatsoever, but on the morning of Dec. 10, out of the 1,489 unclaimed remains, only 12 people had not been identified with names or surnames. Still, there were no family or friends to claim these newly identified victims.
Ramos can identify with those families and friends. Four decades ago her mother left home for work and never came back. She and her siblings do not know if their mother is dead or still alive despite their search throughout the years, but their hope of discovering what happened to their loved ones has not vanished, she said.
In solidarity to the families who have also lost loved ones without experiencing closure, she attended the annual interfaith funeral led by Father Chris Ponnet, director of St. Camillus Spiritual Care Center and head of the Spiritual Care Department of the LAC+USC Medical Center, where unclaimed bodies are kept for three years before being cremated at the Los Angeles County Crematory.
“I don’t know who they were,” Ramos said of the cremated bodies that rest in a common grave. “But they are there together, people of different backgrounds.” Many are homeless persons who might have arrived from other states, said Father Ponnet. A very small percentage are stillborn babies.
“Be still for a moment in a secret place,” Father Ponnet asked the more than 100 people gathered around the common grave, mostly media, county representatives, a few neighbors, and others who learned about the ceremony through social media and media outlets.
The spiritual tone had been set minutes before by cellist Allison Bush, a student at Claremont School of Theology, who performed John Sebastian Bach’s “Sarabande.”
“The spirit and soul of the buried invite you to be still and be aware of what was going on three years ago in your life. Maybe it was joy: a wedding, a birth, a move to another place; or maybe pain: an illness, death.”Father Ponnet then talked about how the chaplains he leads at LAC+USC hospital are “storycatchers,” who have accompanied these men and women during their illness, hearing their stories of broken relationships in need of healing, helping them find “hope in life, meaning in life,” and supporting them in their process of reconciliation.
“We honor their life and death,” said the priest in his welcoming remarks.
“May the guardian of Eden give them rest,” prayed Rabbi Avivah, a chaplain at LAC+USC, followed by other chaplains of different denominations, who prayed the Christian Lord’s Prayer in English, Spanish, Korean, Fiji, and a Hindu chant/prayer.
“They existed,” said Father Ponnet, borrowing a line from the poem, “When Great Trees Fall,” recited by representatives of different denominations.
“They were children of someone, they were friends of others, they were related to others, they inspired us, they had questions and doubts, they had concerns about life and death. We come and say they existed, and as society we say we honor you.”
The collective burial for the unclaimed has been conducted for more than a century, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, but not until the last decade has the service been coordinated through the LAC Board of Supervisors with assistance from the LA Coroner, LAC+USC Decedents Affairs and the Department of Spiritual Care.