What It's Like to See L.A. Bury 1,300 Unclaimed Bodies in One Service

Death specialist Megan Rosenbloom explains the unusual mass ceremony. 

The film Donnie Darko is built around the premise that “Every living creature on Earth dies alone.” But here’s the thing about dying alone: Someone still has to deal with your corpse.

In a variety of circumstances — if you kick the bucket at home and you have no family, or if your body is found on a park bench, or if you step in front of a train and no one can recognize your remains — what’s left of you becomes the property of the county where you left this mortal coil.

Your body is found. It is stored. If no one comes forward to claim you, you’ll stay in storage. And you’ll stay in storage. And you’ll stay in storage. Then you’ll be burned and turned to ash. Then you’ll go back to storage. Eventually, the county moves your ashes into a mix with all the ashes of everyone else who died in your same calendar year. You will be anonymous carbon, inseparable from your fellow man, and on a weekday morning you will all be laid to rest in the ground by a few government employees.

In this way, some 1,379 unclaimed bodies were buried in Los Angeles this past week. In a single service. The only thing these people had in common was they died in 2012.

The L.A. Times reported on the statistics of those involved, and LAist summarized it succinctly:

The bodies were found in a number of places. The most common point of origin were residences, while several came from area hospitals including the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center and and the California Hospital Medical Center. Some died in nursing homes, while others were found outdoors in homeless encampments or on the side of the road. There are 944 males, 407 females and four whose gender is unknown. Over 100 of them were babies, two were teenagers, and most were over 60 at their time of death. A total of 450 were considered suspicious, and 11 are unidentified. Of these 11, seven are John Does, one is a Jane Doe, and three are just “Unknown.”

Yet even unclaimed and unknown people may receive a due send-off. One in attendance this week at the Los Angeles ceremony was Megan Rosenbloom, an author and my go-to expert in the field of deathstuff. Rosenbloom is part of a research team that seeks to identify and test alleged cases of anthropodermic bibliopegy (that is, books bound in human skin) to determine whether they’re human. She’s also the director of Death Salon and a medical librarian at USC. Death Salon endeavors to educate the public about all things related to the end of life and a culture of acceptance.

Rosenbloom walked me through the events of the day, and answers my stunned questions about what’s going on here.

The ceremony for 1379 unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles. Photo credit Megan Rosenbloom.

Photo by Rosenbloom.

Megan, you attended an event today that was a memorial for 1,300-plus bodies unclaimed since 2012. That’s kind of horrifying and bleak. What leads to something like this?

There are a number of situations that could lead to a body being unclaimed. Surprisingly, very few of the bodies are John or Jane Does, so it’s not that L.A. County doesn’t know who they are. Some people are homeless, don’t have any family, or are estranged from their families. Some families are unable to afford the fees to collect the remains from the county. Those are the generalities, but I’m sure each of these lives have their own complicated stories about how they ended up in this mass grave with a thousand strangers.

I know you and Death Salon are big on people talking to the living member of their family about plans for what to do with their bodies. Is that to avoid things like this?

While it’s super important to talk about your wishes for your death early and often with your loved ones, if one doesn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up in an anonymous mass grave. But planning financially for your death would definitely go a long way towards avoiding that eventuality and from putting a huge burden on the family you leave behind.

There are options like certain types of pre-need funeral arrangements or insurance that would assist with the costs that are associated with cremation or burial, but people should be very careful about any arrangements they make this way to make sure it covers what they think it will, and that their families know they bought that kind of coverage. Life insurance can often cover these expenses but funeral payment is often required before the insurance payout comes. Direct cremation — where the body goes to a funeral home or crematory just long enough for the appropriate paperwork to be filed before it is cremated without a funeral — is often the most cost effective option. The Funeral Consumers Alliance is an excellent resource for knowing your rights and how to cut down on costs surrounding a death.

Photo of Death Salon team by David Orr, Rosenbloom at right.

Photo of Death Salon by David Orr

What was the experience like today? Was there entertainment? Was there a call time? Were there readings, religious or otherwise?

The ceremony began at L.A. County Cemetery at 10 a.m. and lasted about an hour. Unfortunately I missed the beginning because when I arrived the police standing by the police car at the front of the cemetery (which I was surprised to see) told me there was no longer any parking within the cemetery and I had to drive quite a distance to find a spot and walk back. However if I’m going to be late for a funeral for a bunch of poor unknown people, I’m very glad the reason why is because it was so crowded. I’m told even just a few years ago this was not the case at all. There was usually only a handful of people present. Today there might have been hundreds there. I find that deeply heartening.

There was an interfaith pastor leading the service who brought up representatives of various religions and communities to give words according with their traditions — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Native American — and within a number of languages as well. Groups not represented by a specific representative, like atheists and the LGBT community, were referenced. There were some poems. The refrain repeated in between each segment was, “You are not forgotten. You are remembered, and we carry you in our hearts,” which I found to be moving, especially upon repetition. At the end of the service, people were invited up to the tarped area where the cremated remains of the bodies unclaimed since 2012 were buried. Mourners were supplied with flower petals to throw on the grave if they wished.

Rosenbloom, photographed by Elli & Polly Photography

Elli & Polly Photography

Was there any kind of emotionally charged environment? Is this even sad or is this — the closest thing I can imagine to wartime mass-graves, just sad on a completely different level?

It is definitely awe-inspiring when you’re standing there, thinking about the sheer amount of humanity that is interred in that small patch of ground, and that this happens every year at this scale and few people are aware of it. There was an appropriate solemnity but the vibe was different from a funeral for someone where all the attendees knew the person. It was a quieter, contemplative, existential sadness, if that makes sense. I can only speak for myself, but I was mostly lost in thought, wondering about all those people in that grave and how they got there.

My research on the history of books bound in human skin — many of whom were unidentified indigent patients of the doctors that made the books — has me thinking a lot about the anonymous dead, and why that idea is so difficult for us to bear. I was in the catacombs in Paris recently and those thousands of skulls, stacked in beautiful formations, they belonged to people who were made anonymous by the march of time. No one remembers the vast majority of people who have ever lived on this earth, but the idea of the anonymous or mass grave seems so upsetting to us. It’s an interesting human trait and I suspect has its roots in our societal death denial. When faced with the awareness of our own eventual mortality, we feel compelled to create things that live on past us — art, culture, babies — because the idea that we’ll be dead and gone someday is too much to bear. So at a ceremony like this, the idea that these people didn’t quite have a chance to fulfill that creative drive, that they couldn’t create new people that could grow up and take care of their dead body, that they didn’t create something culturally that would make people care enough to chip in for a funeral, or simply that they just didn’t get the timing right … that strikes us as unfathomably sad.

Just as much as contemplating the dead, I found myself looking around at all the people around me and what made them want to be there today. I wish I could have asked every single one of them about their motivations. I know that mine are unusual. I do this work in death positivity, I do this historical research having to do with human remains, and I have this community — I even recognized at least one person there from our Death Salon events — so it makes perfect sense to me that I would be there. But what draws others to come to something like this is very interesting to me. It was a very diverse crowd in pretty much every way. Not often do you encounter that kind of crowd in a city as socially stratified as Los Angeles. But we’re all in this mortality thing together.

At the ceremony I saw someone from my library, and we were both very surprised to see the other one there. She told me that she volunteers weekly with a mission and that some of the homeless people she feeds there probably end up in these graves each year. I had no idea she did this kind of work. Then she told her friend that I was the last person she expected to see there, and I had to stifle a big laugh, but then I realized she has no idea of about my death work, this huge part of my life, at all. We work in the same small library. We see each other and smile and say hi every day. But we are functionally strangers. We’re just as good as anonymous to each other. But we learned a little something about each other today that we never would have otherwise. We even hugged! Somehow these dead strangers brought us a tiny bit closer. I think that’s beautiful.

Have you been to any of these events in the past?

This was my first time attending, and it definitely won’t be my last. I am glad the local news media has raised awareness about these events so that interested people can attend. As clued into what’s going on in death in L.A. as I think I am, I found out about this event from a Facebook invite, of all places. There are a lot of people who would want to come to an event like this for many different reasons. I’m glad L.A. County does this event and I find it heartening that it grows significantly larger each year. I hope to come each year.

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