Courtesy of NPR.org | By NPR Staff | Originally Posted 12.14.2014 | Published 10.05.2017
Every year since 1896, Los Angeles County has held a somber ceremony for the men, women and children who die there, but whose bodies are never claimed.
Some of those buried are unidentified; they are buried as Jane and John Does.
Many others have been identified, but for a variety of reasons, family and friends never picked up their cremated remains.
This year, in an interfaith ceremony on Dec. 9, the county buried the ashes of 1,489 people in a mass grave in the County Cemetery in LA’s Boyle Heights.
County employees, media and others from the region — there simply to pay respects — watched as religious leaders recited the Lord’s Prayer in English, Spanish, Korean and Fijian. A Hindu prayer was read, along with a poem by Maya Angelou.
“They come to us as Larry 22s, Margaret 54s,” said Father Chris Ponnet, leading the ceremony. He’s a Catholic priest, but at this ceremony, he ministers to all faiths and to nonbelievers.
“Sometimes families are with them, and some are not,” Ponnet said. “But today, we as a community, in the great tradition of this county, say, once again, ‘They existed.’ ”
This year, the county buried the people who died in 2011. The county holds onto the cremated remains of the unclaimed for three years, in case someone ever comes to retrieve them.
Albert Gaskin is the caretaker of the those remains. He has worked for LA County for 42 years, and for more than 30 of those years, he has worked in the chapel and crematorium by the cemetery.
Each day, beginning around 4 a.m., he and his colleague, Craig Garnette, cremate the bodies of the unclaimed dead. Gaskin says they typically handle six bodies a day.
After cremation, the ashes are kept individually in brown plastic boxes, about the size of an average hardcover book. Those boxes are kept in a room at the crematorium on gray metal shelves, 13 shelves high. Gaskin says the remains around 6,000 individuals are kept in that room, in case someone comes to claim them.
When a family member or a friend comes to claim those remains, Gaskin says it can be painful.
“Sometimes you feel their emotions,” he says. “So you just say, ‘Are you all right?’ And you sit down to talk to them and pat them on the shoulder … You just have to do the best you can to be a help to them.”
Gaskin is matter-of-fact but respectful in talking about his job. He says the feels like he’s doing an important service for his community. But there are times when the work can get to him.
“You get used to it, and then you’re not,” Gaskin says “So just say your little prayer and keep on. Trying to make the day. Tomorrow will be better. Always look for tomorrow.”