Witnessing The Unclaimed Dead

We stood, a hundred or so of us, jammed under a complex of blue tents in a thunderous downpour. This was real rain, not just LA rain, a driving rain that had turned the grass of the cemetery grounds into a sucking puddle of mud. 

At the center of the crowd, flanked by an underpowered speaker, was a small gathering of religious figures, clustered around a freshly dug grave. Inside the grave were the cremains of 1,457 people who had died in LA County in 2016 and remained unclaimed. The county held on to their mortal remains for three and, when no one was found or came forward to accept the ashes, they were buried in this small green space. We were all gathered there to put these people – our neighbors – to rest. 

The ceremony was quick, only 30 minutes, and across the length of it the rain lessened and eventually stopped. After a short intro from the city the service began in earnest with an opening prayer by Father Chris Ponnet, who talked about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Yes, the Mr. Rogers movie.

Father Ponnet said he had loved the film, and he recommended it to everyone gathered there. But what he wanted to focus on was a scene where Mr. Rogers asks a cantankerous journalist to sit quietly for one minute and think about all the people who had loved him into existence, who had brought him into the world and made him who he was.

Father Ponnet asked us to take a moment to think about all the people who had loved these 1,457 humans into existence. Each of them had two parents, most of them (there are stillborn babies included in the number) had friends and lovers. Each of those lives touched other lives. Each of those people lived, and mattered by the sheer truth that they lived, and that was why I was there – to pay witness to the fact that they existed, and that someone cared about them.

The rest of the ceremony was beautiful – I was especially moved by Josh Andujo performing an ancestor song of his Tongva people, who were the Native peoples of the Los Angeles basin before colonialism, and by the chanting of Buddhist funerary rites by Reverend Wendy Egyoku Nakao of the Zen Center of LA (the low-octave chanting, punctuated by the ringing of a bell, vibrated me in an almost mystical way) – included Psalm 23 in Hebrew as well as an Islamic prayer, and ended with the Lord’s Prayer in English, Spanish and Tagalog. The interfaith nature of the event brought me back to My Sweet Lord, the George Harrison song that I wrote about last week, and about the idea that all religions lead to one destination. 

“God,” former AC/DC tour manager-turned-preacher Barry Taylor said. “Is the name of the blanket we throw over the mystery to give it shape.” Each of these figures were addressing the mystery in their own way, through their own tradition. None were wrong.

LA has been holding this ceremony since 1896, back when this area of Evergreen Cemetery – LA’s oldest cemetery and one of the largest – was still known as potter’s field. Every town has a potter’s field; it’s the part of the graveyard where they bury the indigent and, in the old days, the people who were the wrong race to be buried amongst the white folks. But buried is a nice way of putting it – very often the people in potter’s fields were just dumped into mass graves, their passing noticed only by day-laboring grave diggers. 

They’ve been called potter’s fields since Biblical days; the origin is found in the New Testament, in the Gospel According to Matthew. Judas, having betrayed Christ and feeling remorseful, tried to return his thirty pieces of silver to the Pharisees:

Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said: “What is that to us? Look thou to it.” And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself with a halter. But the chief priests, having taken the pieces of silver, said: “It is not lawful to put them into the corbona [poor box], because it is the price of blood.” And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter’s field, to be a burying place for strangers. For this the field was called Haceldama, that is, the field of blood, even to this day.

The potter’s field looked like a literal field of blood because it was where the potters got the dark red clay with which they worked. When a clay field had been fully exploited there wasn’t much use for the land – nothing could grow there – so the existing trenches and holes made a great place to toss the corpses of those who, for one reason or another, could not receive a proper orthodox burial.

(Acts of the Apostles has Judas himself buying the field, falling over dead in it and – I shit you not – exploding and having all his intestines gush out onto this Field of Blood)

It seems to me that Christ, who died on the cross flanked by thieves, would have identified more with those buried in a potter’s field than with those who dismissively tossed the indigent dead into a place named after land bought with blood money, but I’m not a Christian, so what do I know.

Who were the people in that grave? Every one of them was their own person, with their own lives and experiences. Some of them had died on the streets of this unforgiving city, so deceptively sunny and cheerful. Some of them had died in poverty, without the funds to pay the extraordinary expenses of becoming dead. Some of them just had nobody, had outlived everyone else in their life, had become a grey lone survivor invisible to the world around them. Some were prisoners, dying behind bars and without a final place to rest. Some were stillborn, never having the chance to laugh or cry. 

All were our neighbors.

I stood in that muddy cemetery surrounded by other people who also wanted to bear witness for our neighbors. I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe that the ashes that filled in that grave (they dump the ashes in the hole, they don’t bury the boxes in which the ashes are kept, so the grave is just about three feet of light grey human cremains) were sacred or anything. They’re the remains of a human being who is no longer a human being. But they were human beings, just like me, just like the people who stood around that grave, and that deserves recognition and dignity. Some of the people in that grave harmed others, some were harmed. Some of the people in that grave I would not have liked if I had met them on the street, but they were human people, and they were loved by someone at some time, and they loved someone at some time. They lived.

Standing there I knew it wasn’t impossible that I would end up in a grave like that. I have younger siblings who will probably outlive me, but who knows. Only the good die young, after all, and I have a sinking suspicion I’m going to live a long time (famous last words?). I don’t actually care if I end up in a grave like that – again, I don’t believe in an afterlife, when I die my consciousness ceases and I am annihilated totally – but I find it comforting that if I do there will be people standing at the graveside, acknowledging that I was here.