BOYLE HEIGHTS — Sunshine greeted mourners Friday who came to the first public funeral for Los Angeles’s unclaimed since 2019. 

The ceremony and service, located at the east end of Evergreen Cemetery in the County of Los Angeles Cemetery space in Boyle Heights, which has been happening at this time of year annually since 1896, is special to Los Angeles. Lives honored at this year’s service were the first group of individuals laid to rest since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

This year’s 1932 people (as confirmed by LA County Cremator Operator Craig Garnett) and the thousands of others in previous years who are laid to their final rest are honored by the many strangers who attend the annual ceremony. Many of the decedents — a legal term LA County uses for a person who has died — were homeless or lacking support systems, not just in life but in death. They end up there due to financial reasons, themselves having a lack of finances to obtain their individualized funeral or kin to come and retrieve them before they end up at the ceremony.

“We don’t know enough about the people we are burying today to really do them justice,”  District 4 County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula through Long Beach and the Gateway Cities, said at the ceremony’s opening. “But we know many of them were unhoused, some were children, some were immigrants to this country far from families who love and miss them, and almost all of them were very poor.”

Financial insecurity in life is not just something that exists for the individuals laid to rest. Funerary costs at the end of life can often be difficult for families to endure.

The costs involved with picking up cremains (or cremated remains) can sometimes be prohibitive for low-income loved ones of a decedent. Here in LA, it costs approximately four hundred dollars to collect a loved one’s cremains. The cost for unclaimed remains varies across the country. It varies even for major cities within the state. San Francisco, for example, costs over a thousand dollars to pick up cremains for a decedent processed through the city.

The last year that LA County had done this service, in 2019, conditions for the funeral were somber, but the audience was bigger as the process was handled a bit differently before the COVID-19 pandemic. It rained as hundreds of onlookers paid their respects to the 1624 people who had passed.

Like others before it, this year’s service was a mixed interfaith ceremony with respect given by multiple groups participating. During the service, prayers were offered in different faiths: a Tonga prayer, a Muslim prayer, a Jewish prayer, a Buddhist chant, and a Christian prayer. Pieces of the service were done in multiple languages, including Tongan, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. The event was also live-streamed as in previous years, with closed captioning available for at-home viewers. However, there wasn’t a sign-language interpreter available at the ceremony. The service also included musical accompaniment. Violinist Vijay Gupta played violin at the service. His non-profit choral music group, Street Symphony, also did several other musical ensemble pieces to pair with the poetry, speeches, and prayers.

City and county officials were also present at the ceremony. District 1 County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents an area that includes the LA cemetery for unclaimed decedents is laid to rest, appeared for the first time. Each mourner, official county member or otherwise, was dressed to honor the deceased. Some wore symbols of their respective faiths. A couple of folks who attended the ceremony wore keffiyehs. Everyone who attended the ceremony was peaceful and kind to one another.

Jennifer Stavros / LA Public Press.

Although this year’s physical crowd was sparse, it was full of first-time attendees and individuals who had come for many years.

Jocelyn Castellanos and Neil Blick attended the 2019 funeral. While they couldn’t pinpoint where exactly they had found out about the ceremony, Castellanos stated that she’d learned about it through online searches for things to do around LA. They commented about the ceremony and why they chose to attend.

“I’m not religious myself, but I like to see all the other religions come & do their traditional funeral rites. I think it’s interesting.” Blick said about the ceremony.

“I come because I like to be a part of the community. I know it’s people that don’t have anyone or aren’t here.” Castellanos stated. “I want them to know that I came here. That there are people here. That’s why I decided to come.”

Father Dylan Littlefield also has attended the ceremony in the past, physically and digitally. He came to this year’s service for a very specific reason.

“I am the chaplain at the Hotel Cecil, which is one of the largest supportive housing units in downtown Los Angeles on Skid Row.” Father Littlefield stated. “There’s a pretty big probability that there’s someone in here that I knew in some form or another, and I wanted to give honor to anyone that I might have known and people I didn’t know.”

Adam Faruqi, a Palestinian who was one of the two people wearing a keffiyeh at the ceremony and one of the performers who sang with the Street Symphony, was a first-time attendee to the service. He had heard about the service previously but had not known how to attend.

“I learned about it a year ago or perhaps two years ago. I found the premise highly intriguing. I knew immediately that I wanted to participate. I was very grateful this year to be invited to sing.”

The lack of general awareness about the ceremony and the process is sadly known to several attendees, including county officials.

Liz Odendahl, the communications director for Hahn, has been going since 2016. She admitted to concerns that the event isn’t widely known to the public. “We’ve been encouraging the Department of Health Services to make it more public.”

In 2020, 2021, and 2022, the public could watch the service via a Facebook livestream produced in partnership with LA General Medical Center. The service was there for interested public viewers to be viewed online during the ceremony and afterwards. You can watch the ceremony for each of the three years online to this day. This year, unlike previous years, LA General Medical Center’s Facebook annual cast does not appear to be showing. The county responded to our request for information with a Vimeo link to watch this year’s service online. That video does not appear on their publicly-facing Vimeo account, LAGeneralMed, as of Sunday evening. It’s unclear if they will update the Facebook page for this year with this link.

This year’s in-person ceremony offered limited attendance to viewers. The service was only open to 75 individuals who responded to an Eventbrite posting. The Eventbrite listed details about the event and a link: “For those unable to attend in person, the ceremony will be LIVE-Streamed to allow remote participation.” That link went to the aforementioned Facebook page, where it is currently unknown if the stream aired during the service or not due to a broken link.

Each attendee at the physical ceremony was given an unmarked grey wristband when they entered and a white flower to put on the resting place. Individuals who were not on the list were not allowed in. At least one public member was not let in due to needing to be added to the list. While the event showed as “sold out” nearly immediately after the Eventbrite link was posted, the in-person attendees visibly appeared significantly less than that number despite having no cost to attend.

Members of the public could watch the service in person behind ropes. The public was on one side under a tent, while media members were to the right in front of the resting place. Everyone was invited to lay flowers on the mass grave at the end of the ceremony.

Each year’s decedent’s cremains are laid to rest in a mass plot with the year. No individualized markers are put on the space by default; however, they can come later if a friend or relative discovers a decedent. You’ll see such markers on several annual years. The largest amount of markers (limited to a size of 6×6) currently placed in a single year is six.

Kim Cooper and her husband, Richard Schave of Esotouric Tours, plan on getting a marker for their friend Leo Vaisman, who they found out had been at a previous ceremony too late. Vaisman (who Cooper and Schave nicknamed “Leo the Lost” in their digital eulogy) was known to his friends as a quirky character and a Westside performer endeared to cats whom he trained in his performance to stand on their haunches to perform for fortune-telling scrolls, whom he referred to as “Psychic Cats” passed in 2014. He was among the unclaimed decedents laid to rest in the 2017 unclaimed ceremony. Cooper shared how they came to find that to be.

“I hadn’t been to the West Side in a while to see him while performing. He just came to mind. I wondered what had happened to him. I remembered his last name, so I looked him up.”

Cooper explained. “It occurred to me that it was possible to pick him up, so I called the Coroner’s office. It was then that I found him not only on the coroner’s office desk but that he was on the unclaimed list. I knew what that had meant because I had been to the ceremonies before.”

While Cooper and Schave expressed gratitude for the service existing here for Los Angeles, they were disappointed that they weren’t aware of his death to claim him before being a part of a previous ceremony. They stated remorse about not being able to do something sooner, personally or collectively, with other community members helping.

“I felt regret because if I had found him or found out about it- if I had found out about his physical remains earlier, I might have asked if he didn’t have family, if the community could chip in to honor him.”

Individuals around LA who might be concerned that their loved one may be in a coming or previous ceremony can ask to consult records for the year that their loved one may have been lost. LA County records everyone who has passed through their crematorium in physical logbooks in the cemetery chapel. Unfortunately, these books are neither digital nor publicly accessible without a direct request. If you are concerned that your loved one might have passed through there, you’ll have to contact the cemetery office to check and examine their records. If you find that your loved one is in their records, you can, like Cooper and Schave, honor them afterwards as you wish. LA County officials encourage you to go before the annual ceremony if you can.

Whether you know someone included at the service or not, members of the public like Blick encourage you to embrace compassion.

“I think it’s cool to be here for people who don’t have anyone.”