Nestled in the shadows of towering incineration smokestacks in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights is the LA County Crematorium Cemetery. If you die in LA and nobody cares enough about you to claim your body—or can't pay the fees to do so—it gets cremated, the ashes sit around for three years, then they get carted over here and finally put to rest.
The cemetery is peaceful, and otherwise indistinguishable from a well-kept lawn lined with some pine and sycamore trees. The sounds of a passing light-rail train blend with the jets descending into the nearby airport. The only indication of the tens of thousands buried in the grass are the dozens of half-square-foot concrete plaques imprinted with a single year that are scattered throughout the landscape.
Each plaque marks the space where the unclaimed dead for that year are buried. The earliest marked graves date back to the early 1960s, though LA County opened the burial ground for the unclaimed dead in the early 20s.
Another small concrete rectangle was added on December 11, 2014, marking the final resting place for 1,489 people who died in 2011. The county held a small interfaith ceremony in the morning to commemorate them.
"It is difficult for us to imagine how someone could be unclaimed," said LA County Supervisor Don Knabe. "It stirs us, and makes us wonder who they were. But it's important for us to celebrate them and their life."
Numbers from the County Morgue tell us that over the past eight years, LA County has buried 12,963 people in the cemetery, accounting for those who were unclaimed and died between 2004 and 2011. A pamphlet handed out at the beginning of the ceremony attempted to explain why, indicating that if the remains are unclaimed or legal next-of-kin do not have "sufficient funds" for burial or cremation, the county cremates the remains and stores them for about three years.
But that doesn't tell us who they were.
Joyce Kato is an investigator with the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, where she's worked for 25 years, both in the field and behind a desk. Kato is one of the two investigators working in the coroner's notification's department, meaning it's her job to find a dead person's next-of-kin in cases where that's not immediately clear.
"A lot of these people lived their lives in a way that didn't leave anyone behind to take care of them after they're gone," explained Kato, cycling through some reports from 2011, on her computer.
She pulled up a case of Gerald Lee Bastin, a 54-year-old white man who was found by staff in his room at a Motel 6 in El Monte. His death was officially ruled as the result of natural causes, but a quick glance at the report reveals Bastin lived a troubled life.
"He follows a homeless nomadic lifestyle, packing all his possessions and three dogs into a dilapidated camper truck" reads the investigator's narrative. "Grossly obese with over 300 pounds on a 70-inch frame, Bastin suffers anxiety, unspecified seizures, and schizophrenia in addition to uncontrolled diabetes."
When paramedics arrived, they had to move his dogs into an adjacent room so they wouldn't bother them. They found Bastin on the bed.
Kato pulled up the notes on the case, hoping to find something that could lead to someone who knew him. The notes mentioned a woman named Melody Bastin-Hamilton, potentially an estranged sister. When contacted by Kato, though, Bastin-Hamilton said Bastin had attempted to kill her multiple times.
"In 2001, a bit of time after our father died, he found out where I live and attacked me," Bastin-Hamilton told me over the phone. "He broke my front window, threatened to cut my daughter's heart out and shove it down my throat."
Bastin was was apparently jealous relationship with their father; Bastin-Hamilton said that while she had helped take care of him during his fight with cancer, her brother chose, more or less, to lean on his relationship with their father only when he needed money or was in trouble. He was in and out of state prison multiple times for offenses ranging from criminal insurance fraud—he set his car on fire in an attempt to get a payout—to assault with a deadly weapon. So it's understandable that when the coroner's office called her in 2011 to notify her of her brother's death, she was relieved.
"It meant I didn't have to keep looking over my shoulder," she said. "I felt free for the first time in a very long time, less worried for my own and my children's safety. I'm glad he's gone."
When the coroner's office asked if she could claim the ashes, she couldn't afford the fees. (In Los Angeles County, the price for a county cremation and body transportation is about $400.)
"I wish I could have, but I couldn't afford to bury him," she said. "And to be honest, I didn't care. I feel bad for saying that but I honestly don't care. He was a brutal man who wanted me dead."
Sometimes bodies that are left around for a long time are claimed by someone. For example, in the case of Eva Bassey a first cousin once-removed eventually paid to bury her at a Forest Lawn in West Covina. But the sort of narrative of estrangement and hurt that surrounded Bastin's death was mirrored in most of the 52 other cases I looked at for this story.
There was John Fisher, an 80-year-old man who was found unresponsive by employees at a Bell Gardens nursing home where he lived. No next-of-kin was found.
Nor was any relative located in the case of James Nugent, a 76-year-old discovered by a handyman in a Long Beach garage. Nugent told his landlord he was renting for vehicle storage. When investigators arrived, they found Nugent in "pack rat conditions," on the ground next to a car and a live duck. Neighbors recalled seeing Nugent visiting the nearby park, toting the duck along in a wicker basket.
Then there's Ruth Pace, a 470-pound woman who died with a tattoo of Snoopy on her chest and no upper teeth. During her last month of life, Pace was admitted to three different medical facilities, eventually dying at Marina Care Center in Culver City. As with the others, no next-of-kin were ever found, nor have any come looking.
All of these people are now in the ground at the LA County Crematorium Cemetery , marked by a concrete block that simply reads "2011."
During the ceremony, chaplains recited the Lord's Prayer in English, Spanish, Korean, and Fijian. A reverend led a Hindu chant, and a rabbi recited a Jewish prayer in memorial.
According to Kato, the audience this year was substantially larger than it has been in the past; fewer than two dozen people tended to show up, but on this Wednesday, about 60 people stood around the grave, half of them armed with press passes for local news agencies.
Those without press credentials were there to commemorate the existence of the buried. Rick Watts, a disabilities advisory board member from West Hollywood, explained, "It is the only chance they'll get to be acknowledged one last time. I'm here for that."
A few religious leaders read some poems by Maya Angelou, then yielded to final remarks by another chaplain about 20 minutes after the ceremony began.
"They had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers," he said. "Memories of childhood, of hopes and dreams. Now we must remember that they existed."
The ceremony concluded, freeing onlookers to scatter around the cemetery and glance at the other gravesides and wonder who these people were, and how they ended up there, nameless under the grass.
Matt Tinoco is a wannabe reporter living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.