Reclaiming lost lives at the LA County cemetery

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The 100 or so folks gathered on this bright, warm December morning were a profiler's nightmare. They were young and old. They were brown, white, black and so tattooed you couldn't tell. They wore gold jewelry and nose rings. They wore pocket silk to match their ties. They wore heels and sneakers.

The only thing these people appeared have in common was an abiding sense of decency and respect for those less fortunate than they.

It was the annual memorial for people who had died in 2011 and whose cremated remains had gone unclaimed for three years. Held at the county cemetery in East L.A., the burial has been staged by the county since 1896, but only since Supervisor Don Knabe shone a light on this hidden corner of civic conscience has the public become somewhat less clueless about what happens if you're too poor, unlucky or disconnected for someone to take care of you after you die.

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At the first ceremony Knabe attended in 1996, he said, there was only one pastor and maybe 10 people paying respects. On Wednesday, the lives of 1,489 people were recognized and celebrated with an interfaith program led by the Rev. Chris Ponnet, who called his 10 fellow chaplains "story catchers."

They recited the Lord's Prayer in four languages. One was Fijian. A rabbi offered Jewish prayers and a Hindu chanted. Although the Native American dancers from years past were missing, Allison Bush played Bach and Rachmaninoff on a doleful cello, as she sometimes does for patients at L.A. County/USC Medical Center, where she's studying to be a chaplain in the Department of Spiritual Care.

Decorating the rectangle of bare brown earth were massive floral arrangements sent by Knabe's office, the county coroner and the Keck School of Medicine.

Cemetery staff, recalled Albert Gaskin, its caretaker, "used to take up a collection [for flowers], but now we're getting some support."

IMG_1830 - Copy.JPGKathy Lowe laid two bouquets and two stuffed teddy bears on the grave. As a counselor for the Neptune Society, which provides cremation services, you'd think Lowe would have had her fill of memorials like this. But here she was in East L.A., all the way from Sherman Oaks, dabbing at the tears.

"Nobody's here for them," she said. "And the babies. And the ones who'll never have babies. I deal with families every day, and they have somebody. It's important that [these people] have somebody."

The ceremony closed with poetry by Maya Angelou, whose deep, resonant voice you could imagine delivering her words. The grave was nearly covered by individual roses, cellophane-wrapped supermarket bouquets and trinkets offered by people who were unlikely to know anyone they were honoring but whose worth they recognized.

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Eileen Davis and Robin Gustus, longtime friends and L.A. natives, came "to show respect for their lives. No one should die alone," a misty-eyed Gustus explained.

Davis, who now lives in Orange County, said, "I'm proud to be part of the county that does this."

Echo Park resident Michelle Carr apologized for the tears running down her face. "I'm not an easy crier," she said. "It breaks my heart that these people have no one."

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In fact, some of the people celebrated today do have loved ones, but circumstances had prevented them from retrieving the remains for a private ceremony. Some return in the months and years after the burial to place mementos and plaques next to the simple stone markers of the year time marched on without them.

Jeff and Amanda Albrizze brought their 2-year-old son, Grayson, to the memorial from their home in San Gabriel. Both took off from work to be here because, Jeff said, "It seemed like it was an important thing to do. We want to teach our son how important it is to recognize community and show compassion in life and death."

"I want to pay respects for people who didn't have anybody," said Amanda, her blue eyes rimmed in red. The ceremony, she said, "is a reminder to treat people well. ... I'm so lucky to have family, I'm lucky to have someone to be there for me when the time comes."

They are raising the kind of person who will miss work one day to negotiate rush-hour traffic, and withstand the noise of sirens, helicopters, Gold Line trains and traffic screaming by at First and Lorena to stand among gnarly white ash trees, on these six acres of hilly urban property where thousands of souls repose, signifying, perhaps, lives of despair. But not without worth.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed."

― Maya Angelou

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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