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Hundreds of unknown remains laid to rest with dignity in L.A.

By Paul Vercammen, CNN
updated 7:30 PM EST, Wed December 7, 2011
Clergy members offer blessings Wednesday for the unclaimed, cremated remains of 1,639 people who died in 2008.
Clergy members offer blessings Wednesday for the unclaimed, cremated remains of 1,639 people who died in 2008.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 1,600 unclaimed bodies are cremated each year at an L.A. cemetery
  • About 15 people came Wednesday for a service marking the latest burials
  • "So many untold stories and so many disconnected people," one says

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Beneath a simple gray stone marker that reads "2008," on a gentle slope at the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery, lie the unclaimed remains of the poor, the homeless, the addicted and the lonely.

Several clergy members extended their arms over the spare gravesite Wednesday morning and gave a final blessing to the 1,639 people who were cremated and buried there because no family member claimed their bodies.

All of the departed passed away in 2008.

"We started these ceremonies (for the unclaimed) in 1896," said Andrew Veis, an aide to Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe. "These people were sick, poor, homeless, no family. Some could not afford to pay for the cremation. The county is their ultimate safety net. We can give them a decent and respectful burial."

The numbers of the unclaimed are heartbreakingly steady. Last year, 1,698 such people were cremated here, the year before, 1,798. The cemetery must wait three years before burying unclaimed bodies.

Sometimes family members suffer the double pain of losing a loved one and not being able to pay for a funeral, and then don't claim their loved because they're too broke.

"It just doesn't have to be that way," said Stella Inouye, a financial services coordinator for the cemetery. "It costs $352 to bury and cremate someone taken from the county hospital and $466 if they pass away somewhere else. But (family members) can write a hardship letter and get the fees waived"

About 15 people ringed the gravesite Wednesday, most of them volunteers or social workers from L.A's downtown homeless community, Skid Row.

"These people may well have been guests at our soup kitchen or even at our house," said Jeff Dietrich, from Hospitality Kitchen, which provides meals for people in need. "I feel like it's kind of a poignant situation when there are so many unclaimed bodies to be buried and so many untold stories and so many disconnected people.

"I think the important thing for us is to just try in these last few hours of their earthly presence to be a presence to them and deeply connected."

Chris Ponnet, spiritual director of care at the Los Angeles County and University of Southern California Medical Center, led the clergy.

"We gather in this sacred space where so many others are buried and trusting these nameless and named but unclaimed people into your embrace," the chaplain said.

Other clergy offered blessings in Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish traditions.

"This is a day of eternal life," began Rambhoeu Brinkmann in the Hindu tradition. "There will be for them all that they wish and more besides, in our presence."

The ceremony ended quickly and the attendees left behind grave marker "2008," adorned with a yellow bow and a small collection of flowers, including roses.

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