One of the saddest annual rituals in Los Angeles took place this week in a green corner of historic Boyle Heights: The county interred the cremated remains of 1,430 forgotten persons—many of them homeless people—in a mass grave, as it has for 120 years.
This year’s nondenominational ceremony and burial of the unclaimed dead included more than 125 babies.
It's the only time of year that attention is paid not only to these souls, but also to the curious parcel of land at the corner of 1st and Lorena streets in Boyle Heights formally known as the Los Angeles County Crematorium Cemetery.
The cemetery occupies what was originally the southernmost corner of historic and sadly decrepit Evergreen Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in Los Angeles. "The land was donated to the county to be used for burials of unclaimed remains," according to the official website. "It has been active since at least 1922, and probably earlier."
Evergreen originally included a "Potter's Field" in the 19th century, where officials buried indigents and people of color who were not allowed to be interred elsewhere. Evergreen's "Potter's Field" was where many of L.A.'s early Chinese immigrants found their final resting place and was the site of a Chinese shrine, which was built in 1888 by residents of old Chinatown.
It included two 12-foot-high "burners" in which relatives burned the departed's effects and favorite clothing to accompany them to the afterlife, as well as silver and gold paper to symbolize money. The shrine is considered the oldest Chinese-American structure in L.A.
"Ownership of the indigent cemetery passed from the City to the County of Los Angeles in 1917, and, in 1924, with burial space there exhausted, the County began to cremate its indigent deceased," Los Angeles Magazine reported in 2010.
The county cemetery for unclaimed dead sits behind a small chapel and crematorium.
The unclaimed dead are interred in mass graves marked by a generic square or rectangular marker that notes the year. Before the 1960s, small round concrete posts marked the graves. Most of those have been overgrown or uprooted, the county said.
The county holds the remains for three years before burying them with other abandoned remains. Each person's remains are interred in his or her own container, so there's at least that small bit of privacy.
If you're wondering if someone you know is buried in the cemetery, you can try to look up a name on the county's site. But many deaths were recorded in handwritten ledgers, and the process of computerizing the records was halted because of a lack of funds.
Finally, if you'd like to pay your respects to the unclaimed dead, you may visit the cemetery, as it is open to the public.