ARUN RATH, HOST:
This past Wednesday on a brilliant sunny day, a somber but beautiful ceremony at the LA County Cemetery. There's nothing special about memorial services in a big cemetery, but this one is unique because on this day the cremated remains of more than 1,400 people are being buried. They died in 2011, but their remains were never claimed by anyone. After three years, the county goes ahead with a mass burial. Who are these people?
JON SCHLEUSS: Some of them are nameless. Some of them are Jane and John Does. Some of them were victims of homicide. A lot of them, the vast majority, were a lot of older people and died in convalescent homes or nursing homes.
RATH: That's LA Times reporter Jon Schleuss. Along with Maloy Moore, he digitized the paper records of the unclaimed in 2011 and looked at their stories. What are the most common reasons people might not be able to claim these bodies?
SCHLEUSS: Money - depending on whether it was handled by coroner or the county, it can be $350 to $460 to claim those ashes.
RATH: And that's just the start, because then all the funeral costs - there's a lot of expenses involved even after you pay that $350.
SCHLEUSS: Yeah, depending on what you want to do. And even before that, you know, if the body was still at the coroner, you'd have to pay the expense of a mortuary attendant to pick up that body and then, you know, start the process of embalming or cremation there.
RATH: Remains don't go unclaimed just for financial reasons. Sometimes there are family disputes or people just lose touch, and so they end up in the care of the County Cemetery and this man.
ALBERT GASKIN: I'm Albert Gaskin - LA County Cemetery Cremator. I've been with the county about 42 years.
RATH: For about 30 of those years, Albert Gaskin has cremated the bodies of the unclaimed dead. Gaskin works with one other man, Craig Garnette, in a small, one-story white building in the County Cemetery in LA's Boyle Heights.
In one room, there's a simple chapel with a concrete floor and 10 plain wooden pews. The crematorium is in the back. There are three chambers in the black and metal cremation machine, and each one holds a single body at a time. It's 9 a.m. when we arrived, but the work had already started hours earlier.
GASKIN: We started this morning at about 4 o'clock. So now we're cooling down.
RATH: The fires heat up to almost 1,600 degrees before they begin to cool down.
CRAIG GARNETTE: Completely off - completely off now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL)
RATH: Craig Garnette shovels and sweeps ash, making sure that each person's remains stay separated. Each one has a numbered metal tag to identify them.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)
RATH: Garnette takes a long metal pole to pull the pan out from below. These are the remains for number 042206. After four hours, all that's left of the body are ash and bone fragments. Often, medical implants made from plastic and metal remain. Gaskin removes those pieces and keeps them in a plastic crate.
GASKIN: Yes, shoulder joint. This is part of a shoulder joint. This will fit on top of here like this.
RATH: After the cremation, Gaskin places the remains in a plastic bag which then go into small, oblong, brown plastic cases roughly the size of a shoebox.
GASKIN: They're stored in here by year and number.
RATH: They're shelved and stored like a library collection until they're claimed or pass the three year mark when they go into the mass grave. It's very detailed, precise work and emotionally intense. Gaskin and Garnette take great care to handle the bodies and remains with respect. And on top of that, Gaskin also deals with the people coming to claim their relatives. He often ends up counseling them through the process, taking on duties one would associate more with a personal physician or a priest.
GASKIN: You can't let it get next to you, but sometimes you feel their emotions. So you just say are you all right? And you sit down to talk to them and pat them on the shoulder. And they like this. You just have to do the best you can to be a help to them.
RATH: And thanks to the digital database created by The LA Times, more relatives are coming forward to claim their loved ones. Again, Jon Schleuss...
SCHLEUSS: A woman had been looking for a relative - wasn't able to find this person and actually emailed us because after our story ran, she found this person in our database and was able to go to the county and claim them.
SCHLEUSS: So it was pretty magical for her. And I felt really moved, too, because, you know, that was one person that...
RATH: And so she was able to retrieve these remains that otherwise would've gone into this mass grave?
SCHLEUSS: That's right, yeah.
RATH: But the unclaimed, those who do end up in the mass grave, are not denied a dignified end...
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)
RATH: ...Which brings us back to the ceremony that took place this past week as it has every year since 1896. It marks the burial of all the unclaimed men, women and children who died in LA County in 2011. There are Jewish and Hindu prayers, the Lord's Prayer in multiple languages.
CHRIS PONNET: Our father, who art in heaven...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language).
RATH: Father Chris Ponnet leads the ceremony. He's a Catholic priest but wears a stole bearing symbols from the world's major religions. Like an Army chaplain, he has to minister to all faiths, as well as nonbelievers.
PONNET: They come to us as Larry 22s, Margaret 54s. Sometimes families are with them, and some are not. But today, we as a community, in the great tradition of this county, say, once again, they existed. And as a society we say we honor you.
RATH: And even though these dead are unclaimed, there's a fairly big crowd here - county employees and media along with others here just to pay their respects, like Sam Judis. She had lost touch with her mother a long time ago. Only later she found out her mother had died and was buried here in 2002. This day seemed like the right time to visit.
SAM JUDIS: I hadn't spoken to her in many years. And the first thing I did was check to see if she was still alive because I couldn't find her. I found the death certificate and called. And they confirmed she was here. And it took me a few years to accept it and then a few more years to be able to come. So that's why I'm here today.
TERRI LEVINE: I feel like it's the least that we could do is pay respects to these people.
LEVINE: They're people, too.
RATH: That's Sam Judis' friend Terri Levine.
LEVINE: This is my BFF and our mothers' names were Florence.
JUDIS: That's right.
LEVINE: She came to my mother's funeral. And...
JUDIS: So she's here with me today.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)
RATH: As the ceremony comes to an end, Albert Gaskin, the cemetery caretaker watches quietly as he has for decades, having brought the unclaimed of Los Angeles - thousands of men and women and children - to their final resting place.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)
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