LA County conducts mass burial of 1,639 unknowns

Mass Burial Crematory

Corey Moore/KPCC

Clergy members and others preside over a ceremony to honor 1,639 people whose remains were buried at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery.

Wednesday morning, Los Angeles County conducted a burial of more than 1,600 people in a mass grave at a Boyle Heights cemetery. The remains included individuals who were homeless, indigent or unclaimed by relatives.

Blue tarp encircled the gravesite at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery, while yellow, white and red flowers sat atop the dirt.

Los Angeles County conducts a ceremony every December, and on this sunny, brisk morning, 1,639 people were buried in the mass grave.

Officials said this is likely the only way the dead, some of whom are unidentified or don’t have connections to family or close friends, would receive a respectful and dignified burial. Small plaques displayed the names of the dead who had been identified but whose families never surfaced. In some cases, loved ones couldn't afford the costs of a funeral.

But Father Chris Ponnet, director of the Spiritual Care department at L.A. County, reminded those at the service that the backgrounds of the deceased, in the end, are not important.

"Whatever that life was, we honor them," said Ponnet. "We trust that they are in God's embrace."

Ponnet presided over this morning's service, and attempts were made to keep the burial interfaith so that they could "honor both the person of non-faith or various faiths."

Some members of the nonprofit L.A. Catholic Worker attended today’s ceremony — the only mourners at the ceremony. The soup kitchen has said that people they have helped in downtown's Skid Row could be among the dead.

"It could've been somebody we've met before," said Theodore Kayser of Boyle Heights. "Could've been somebody we knew. And it's just the right thing to do to make sure that people get a proper final rest."

Unclaimed bodies are routinely taken to the county coroner’s office for cremation, and some remains stay there for up to three years as officials attempt to find relatives. L.A. County has conducted mass burials since 1896.

Officials said that as the economy has worsened, the number of individuals buried has gone up.

This story has been updated.

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