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LA County’s unclaimed bodies in mass burial

Ceremonies were held at end of 2019

Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 1/16/2020, midnight

Last December, 1,460 residents—who died without an identity or whose remains were not claimed—were buried at the Los Angeles County Crematorium and Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

Since 1896, the city of Los Angeles has annually honored many Jane and John Does, as well as unclaimed bodies in this facility, also known as “Potter’s Field,” which has become the resting place of many homeless people who have died in LA.

“There are many unclaimed here, they’re completely unknown,” staff chaplain at LA County USC Medical Center Nick Jordan said, ”But there are others who may be from impoverished families. The families just can’t afford the $350 to bury them.”

Many of these persons died on the streets of Skid Row or in other parts of LA County. Some of them were forgotten in nursing homes and died there.

According to the new campaign “End Homelessness Now-LA Campaign (EHN-LA)” an estimated 1,000 unhoused people died last year in LA County. Six bodies a day are brought to the cemetery.

Caretaker Albert Gaskin, prepares the bodies to be cremated by giving each of them a round metal tag with a number engraved.

Every morning, around 4 a.m., the bodies are cremated. The ashes of each individual are kept in small brown plastic boxes. Gaskin, who has worked for the County Cemetery for over 45 years, says an estimated 6,000 individuals are kept in a room at the crematorium, if relatives come to claim the remains.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster filled with tears and regrets, when individuals come and pick up the ashes.

“Sometimes you feel their emotions,” Gaskin said in an interview. “So you just say, ‘Are you alright?’ 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.”

For Gaskin, it doesn’t feel like a job, but more so an important service for him and the LA community, however, at times it consumes him.

Gaskin is in charge of the book that keeps all unclaimed deaths until they either get buried in a mass grave or picked up by relatives.

Everything is still done manually.

But that might change according to the Department of Public Health. Officials said they are planning to digitize those records in the near future. However, some cases handled by the coroner—which is about a third—can be searched for, online.

But for now Gaskin is the keeper of those records, which are stored in a fireproof safe in a room somewhere in the old chapel-like crematorium.

“You get used to it, and then you’re not,” he explained in an interview. “So just say your little prayer and keep on. Trying to make the day. Tomorrow will be better. Always look for tomorrow.”

More than 100 people visited to honor the unclaimed deaths of thousands of local residents they have never met before. Even different religious leaders, such as Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Humanists decided to stop by and pay their last respect as well, with prayers.