MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to a problem that's come into just about every county in the country: What to do with the dead when they're bodies go unclaimed or their families can't afford to bury them. In New Mexico, remains are cremated and often spend years on county storage shelves in a kind of limbo.
From member station KUNM, Carrie Jung has the story of one county there that's found a way to bury the unclaimed remains, while honoring their humanity.
CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: On a blisteringly hot summer afternoon, about 40 people are gathering in the Evangelico Cemetery in southwest Albuquerque. Deacon Pablo Lefebre leads the service and begins with a prayer.
PABLO LEFEBRE: Because God has chosen to call our brothers and our sisters from this life to himself, we commit their bodies to the Earth, its resting place, for we are dust and to dust we shall return.
JUNG: This isn't your average funeral. The light gray casket about to be lowered into the ground is filled with the cremated remains of 87 county residents.
LEFEBRE: I have buried them from fetuses to 100-plus. But I have never done this and I feel very honored to be here today, to say goodbye to those who were with us at one time.
JUNG: Some of the deceased were unidentified or left unclaimed by their next of kin. Others came from families who couldn't afford to reimburse the county for their remains, often spending years waiting for a final resting place.
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JUNG: As workers begin covering the casket with dirt, Joe Sais plays the guitar and sings "Por Siempre Adios" - Goodbye Forever.
JOE SAIS: (Singing in foreign language)
JUNG: Today's service is part of a new program run by Bernalillo County. It's now an annual program that pays for the burial and memorial service for people whose remains have been in county possession for at least two years, waiting for someone to either claim them or pay for them.
CHARLIE FINEGAN: You know, it's not just a callous process that we're going through.
JUNG: Charlie Finegan is the owner of the Riverside Funeral Home. He holds the contract with the county to provide cremation services for the unclaimed and indigent. And he played a big role in making this memorial possible.
After the service, he shows me around his facility, which sits just next door to the funeral home and chapel.
FINEGAN: This is the processing center right here. And this is where we actually take care and prepare and care for the bodies.
JUNG: The building has gray cinder block walls and a tin roof. On the far end are two crematories. A body enclosed in a cardboard box is awaiting cremation. Finnegan then points to a steel shelving unit on the east end of his facility.
FINEGAN: This right here, these are the indigents.
JUNG: Right now, the remains of about 100 people are lined up neatly in small white boxes, waiting for their turn to be buried. Finnegan says it's basic but it helps to keep costs down, allowing his funeral home and the county to afford the things they feel are far more important, like the grave site and the memorial service; which is something Pamela Hirst says she doesn't take for granted.
PAMELA HIRST: It is a heavy burden when you can't properly do what you want to do in your heart for somebody you've loved so much.
JUNG: That someone for Pamela was Joe Speer, a poet who lived his life performing and traveling the country in a green Volkswagen van.
HIRST: I still have trouble keeping my composure, you know, when I talk about Joe, because he was really exceptional.
JUNG: Two years ago, Joe died from pancreatic cancer. And for a while, Hirst says she carried around a lot of guilt because she couldn't afford to give him a proper burial.
HIRST: Joe and I were minimalists. We lived in that van and he was very concerned 'cause we didn't really have the money for caskets and burial and plots and stuff.
JUNG: What would you have done if the county hadn't been able to provide this?
HIRST: I have no idea. I had no option. I had no option. Get out a credit card? I don't know.
JUNG: Hirst says the service has finally allowed her to get some closure.
HIRST: I can hardly put words to it but the value is immense for the heart and the soul.
JUNG: The headstone where Joe Speer and the 86 others are buried reads: We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other.
For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Albuquerque.
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