Nearly 2,000 unclaimed bodies were buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles on Dec. 14 as part of an interfaith ceremony put on by the LA County Board of Supervisors.
Auxiliary Bishop Brian Nunes and Father Chris Ponnet, pastor at St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care, were among 11 religious leaders — among them a Buddhist monk and a Jewish rabbi — at the annual event, remembering 1,937 people who died in 2020, but whose bodies were unclaimed, were cremated, and laid to rest.
Also in attendance were LA County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn, and Street Symphony, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that uses music to bring awareness and create support for homeless and incarcerated communities, offered musical accompaniment.
Ponnet said the number of unclaimed dead is higher than normal, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s ceremony was the first back in-person in Los Angeles after a few years of doing it virtually.
“The key piece is that we believe in the dignity of each person,” Ponnet said. “That includes while they’re in the womb, and while they’re alive as well as when they die. So this is a moment in which we as churches, but also uniquely run by the Board of Supervisors, a government entity, that sees these people with a sense of respect and dignity that many other entities don’t.”
A burial service for the unclaimed dead has been happening in LA County since 1896. Each of the 1,937 who were cremated have their remains in an individual container, but are buried together. The site then gets a marker with the year the people died, with this year being 2020.
LA County waits for three years to allow enough time for family, friends, and loved ones to claim the bodies. There are various reasons why the bodies remain unclaimed, Ponnet said, including homelessness, economic, or they were undocumented. Sometimes, loved ones will claim the remains after three years and bury them elsewhere privately.
“I hope it’s one of those good moments of the Church being seen as an active presence,” Ponnet said.