Photo by Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Today, a brace of mourners is bidding farewell to twins Baby Andy and Baby Honey, the briefest of brother and sister. Their scant hours among the living are over, the endlessness of eternity begun. Days before, they were wrapped in blankets and tucked into separate 10-inch by 20-inch coffins with a beanie baby by their sides. The caskets, woodworking projects of Eagle Scouts, are made of pinewood, finely glossed vaults with handles attached. The lids, the last act, were glued on. The Clairemont mortuary has delivered them, and now a two-by-two formation of a dozen Knights of Columbus leads two of their group, who carry the precious cargo up a sodden, sloping hill, massed with flat headstones, in El Camino Memorial Park.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
The Knights, in full regalia — sashes, belted sword and scabbard, purple-and white-plumed chapeaus — totter up the incline. Shoes polished, capes aflutter, the solemn guard enters the Garden of Innocence, a burial enclave of honor and community bereavement created for Baby Andy and Baby Honey as well as hundreds of their kind who, mere glimmers of life, have been interred before them.
Sixty people form a circle around a small patch of 108 same-sized graves, each marker chiseled with a name and the date of internment. Baby Shaylah, Baby Massimo, Baby Tom, and more. These are their afterlife names; their real identities are known but kept confidential because during their lives, they were uncared for by parents or families. It’s hard to say what happened or why. We know many met a dire end, and one hopes that end was quick, merciful. It’s better to leave it be and give the babies respectful anonymity. Why bring up the tragedy of life in the midst of saying goodbye?
The circle of 60 initiates the ceremony: first ritual, handing the caskets around. Holding each pine box from the handles or palming it from the bottom, people pass them along, bow heads, pause with closed eyes, whisper a prayer (a woman next to me says, “Say hello to our friends”). More than a few are stunned by the heft of finality. I hear a man say with surprise, “Andy’s heavier than Honey.” My turn. I touch my cheek to each casket top, and the little trapdoor in my heart, which is often closed, springs open. I am, for now, unaware that a red-tailed hawk is watching the ceremony from a sycamore limb high above.
Allan Musterer speaks during the ceremony at the Garden of Innocence
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
A pastor sermonizes that Andy and Honey are “two beautiful ones who have departed this life so early,” “who no longer will experience the absence of love,” who have gone to “God’s biggest playground.” His tone is closer to gladness than sorrow. A praise-music band sings modestly, “I just want to be where you are.” “In heaven” is the chorus. Poems, homilies, prayers, “messages for our babies,” each take their turn. If the families of these children were here, they’d be devastated. But they’re not — which is the point.
Next is the burial. A workman in a blue maintenance shirt hands each casket to his co-worker who has kneeled in the grave, placing each in a concrete tomb. The crowd again circles and mourners scatter handfuls of multi-colored rose petals onto the coffins.
Finally, while the Knights “present sword” and names of the other babies in the Garden are recited, volunteers holding skittish white doves release them one at a time. The first dove darts to the west, as if sensing the ocean; the second flies to the sycamore branch where the hawk awaits — and attacks. A few mourners shriek. In midair, hawk and dove, demon and spirit, claw and flap, feathers flying. Then, just as suddenly, their tumble separates, brown and white blurs, as if shot or frightened apart. (I learn later that before their release, a man ran a drone over the Garden to scare off the canny hawks who know the Garden drill. But to no avail.) These birds of opposite feather fly off, call it a draw: A woman cries out, “God is here!” Now a dozen more doves (the multitude term: a piteousness of doves) are let loose from a large wicker pen. They race aloft, lurch and whirl, bunch and circle, once, twice, thrice, and rush to the mesa above.
One volunteer tells me that 20 years ago when the Garden opened, she thought they’d never reach 100 graves. Andy and Honey raise the count to 190. With more plots (and more donations), the Garden will accommodate 600 abandoned babies, its full capacity. Before we disperse, a final speaker’s benedictory maxim lands in my notebook: “We wish there were fewer, but we know there’ll be more.”
A last rite of passage
The indefatigable ex-real estate agent Elissa Davey co-founded the Garden with Rebecca Melendez. In 1998, she read about a dead baby boy, discarded in a dumpster, in Chula Vista. Outraged, bewildered, she wondered, “Who could do something like that?” Davey called the coroner about the baby’s disposition. If no one claims him, he will be buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Hope cemetery, site of San Diego’s original potter’s field. That anonymity propelled Davey and Melendez to act. Quickly, volunteers and donors came together, and El Camino donated a hilltop site.
As a creator of Gardens, Davey is consumed by travel. “I just took care of a baby that floated ashore in San Francisco,” she tells me one morning during a visit to the Garden. So far, Davey has started memorial set-asides for abandoned babies in nine other California counties as well as helping to launch gardens (some with columbaria to receive cinerary urns) in St. Louis, Seattle, Dallas, and
The Garden of Innocence at El Camino Memorial Park: first ritual, handing the caskets around. Holding each pine box from the handles or palming it from the bottom, people pass the pine coffins, bow heads, pause with closed eyes, whisper a prayer.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
It’s an idea about dignity whose time and prophet has come. The estimate is that some 7000 babies are abandoned every year in America; in the past, they were nearly always commingled and heaped into mass graves, mostly cremated, too late for any singular memorial. Davey wants every indigent baby to lie in a marked grave and receive ceremonial recognition.
The Garden philosophy emphasizes anonymity. True, local news readers recall gruesome cases: for example, the eight-month-old child thrown out of a third-story window by his mother in Escondido. That toddler, Samuel, now rests in the Garden. Such stories can be tracked down, the wickedness (yet again) exposed. But, Davey cautions, “We can’t change what happened yesterday; we can change what happens today.”
The Garden buries children only at six months’ gestation and above. The majority are stillborn, die at birth or soon after. A few were murdered and some, particularly in the end stage, were found, nursed, and loved. The oldest Garden child who “passed,” a common descriptor you hear among mourners, was three.
Allan Musterer, a board member of the Garden and devout caretaker of the space, says that he can only speculate about the causes of abandonment: “You think that what drives a person to do that is significant. But we don’t spend any time wondering about it.”
One outcome of pairing unclaimed babies with people who care for their remains is how it changes the latter’s lives. The directors and several of the ten staff volunteers I spoke with have this in common: when children are “laid to rest,” those who lay them are consoled — if not transformed — by the act. Dozens attend memorials expressing, privately, their religious beliefs, though the nonprofit Garden is nondenominational. (The service I attended was buttressed by a Christian message.) Tales of butterflies landing on new graves, the sun peeling back clouds, are many. Davey notes that “lots of godly moments” occur at their monthly internments. I hear about one woman, an attorney, who was compelled to come after reading an announcement for a Saturday burial. Musterer relates her story. “For 30 years, I have carried this mountain of guilt because I lost my two children. I finally found peace — something in this Garden has lifted the burden.”
Every Tuesday, the Patriot Guard Riders gather at Miramar National Cemetery, home to 12,000 military dead since 2010, for a brief service.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Davey says only one woman who abandoned her child — who later died — made a pilgrimage to the Garden and identified herself as the mother. Many years incarcerated, “she was thrilled to know her son is here,” Davey tells me. Another story tells of the adoptive mother of a boy who discovered that his twin sister was buried in the Garden. Born addicted to drugs, he survived a year and a half of hospital detox, but his sister did not. The boy, in his late adolescence, brought a rose to lay on his sister’s headstone.
The spirit of forgiveness, of what Allan Musterer calls “celebrating life,” is universal. A man of stoical thought and tender determination, he tells me how he sees the spiritual dimension of the Garden’s offering.
The Garden of Innocence, he says, exemplifies the love of choice, not the love of consequence. People construe love as tit-for-tat, generously giving and greedily expecting a reward. Choice doesn’t work that way, Musterer says. The people who endow the Garden with a ceremonial sendoff choose to love the souls of these babies whose time is too short to have felt love, the love most of us receive, unconditionally, from parents, family, friends. Unloved in life, these children are loved, if only in the instant they take wing, like the white doves set free for elsewhere. Musterer says the Garden represents each baby’s last rite of passage on the journey to heaven.
Evergreen Cemetery Potter’s Field at Mount Hope
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
It may take months
Death comes freight-train fast for us all — don’t ask for whom the bell tolls — but the bill for death is not distributed equally. Those with funds or assets pay. When the dead can’t pay, they are classified as indigent. Post death, people lacking money (or instructions) for burial or cremation, pass into a nether world where they exist as “unclaimed.” In California, counties administer the indigent dead. As Mark Sellars — San Diego county public administrator, guardian, and conservator — tells me in a recent boardroom meeting with county officials, “Nobody remains abandoned at the point of death. Nobody.”
Indigency is covered by California’s welfare and institutions code, #17009, “The board of supervisors may provide for the burial or cremation of the indigent dead and may provide for the maintenance of the graves of such dead.” It sounds strange — that “may provide” — because the county, at least in our time, has chosen to provide.
Two things underlie the law: one, that you deserve (or must have for health reasons) a respectful disposition of your remains; two, that your identity and estate, such as it is, is discoverable. Several county employees, joining with private organizations, work to establish your identity, deliver your remains to a mortuary or confraternity, and, in some cases, remember you with an individual, private, or group burial.
Our Lady of Shoes at Mount Hope Cemetery
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Nowadays, the public administrator’s office takes care of an indigent person who has died despite the place or context of his/her death. Border crossing. Homeless. Nursing home. Disease. Prison. Traffic wreck. Murder. The remains go to the morgue and, eventually, down the line, after an “exhaustive process,” “months or longer” of a “due diligence search,” a decision about the body’s disposition (a bill, if you will) comes due — burial or cremation.
County-funded welfare, indigency is classified under general relief. If there’s nothing suspicious about the death of an indigent, the county holds the body while examiners search for “legal next of kin.” The county morgue has limited capacity, so an active search is constantly in play.
The county seeks to close a person’s “estate,” which may contain assets, property, bank accounts, debts, or personal belongings. Sometimes, the unknown person has assets that can be sold, say, a car that might be auctioned or salvaged. A Bible or memento may be given to a charity, but usually the personal stuff of the unclaimed is discarded once the county finishes its investigation.
If there’s no will (almost always), probate ensues, initiated by creditors if there’s a hope of collecting. But, again, the financial responsibility for the body’s disposal and estate falls on the family. A little-known provision of the health and safety code is that the legal next of kin — a first-degree relative (child, parent, spouse) — is obligated to pay for the body’s disposition. If the relative does not, he or she may be fined and charged with a misdemeanor.
In the fiscal year, 2016-2017, the county administered 422 cremations of indigent persons and five burials. Burials are reserved for unsolved cases — the decedent was part of a crime or its victim.
The indigent team
In San Diego, one of the team of county officials in charge of indigent cases requiring forensic analysis is medical examiner Tessa Lee. Lee tells me that she is often called a “death investigator,” which, like most jobs of a macabre stripe, has none of the C.S.I. allure. She and a staff of 20 delve into mysterious deaths, those “unnatural or sudden and unexpected.” “Unexplained” as well, meaning suspicious.
Examiners work on two fronts. First, to find what caused the death — they may order a toxicology report, perform an autopsy, or take and keep a DNA sample. Second, for those unexplained departures, they process fingerprints, seek out dental records, analyze DNA if a database is available, take note of an individual’s tattoos or other unique body marks, scrutinize Facebook and social media sites, probe the records of local and national jails and prisons for phone numbers and emergency contacts, scour criminal justice files (many of the decedents possess criminal pasts) — the goal, to identify the person as well as uncover any kinsmen who should know that a loved one (often an estranged loved one) has sailed on.
Proud of her role, Lee says, “I would want someone to tell my loved ones what happened to me.”
She notes further that “most people in this world leave a trace.” Nowadays, our digital imprint is nigh ineradicable — with law enforcement, a bank, online sites, a place of residence. Most of us carry an I.D., even a social security card, key to our national namesake. About those who “don’t leave a trace,” Lee says the person has probably used an assumed name — pre-digital elders, for instance, who may have falsified their fingerprints (a real con man). But in a culture where going online is a commodity exchange for one’s privacy, those old-school imposters are disappearing.
Sometimes, Lee says, citing an example, her office finds the deceased’s cousin, who tells her, “he’s got two sons.” They try to locate the sons. Other times, the dead man is the son of a “little old lady in a nursing home in Georgia who herself doesn’t have money” to pay for the disposition, let alone a dignified burial or a memorial plaque. An $800 cremation bill is “onerous,” Lee says, “for a lot of folks.”
To track down a decedent’s identity often requires a forensic genealogist. Lee uses Donna Martin-Netherton, who, working from home in Iowa, receives a decedent’s name, birthdate, ethnicity, and social security number. That, she tells me by phone, is good news and bad news. The good news is that with Ancestry.com, public records, census data, online family trees, and obituaries, she’s able to locate the legal next of kin for most. She and her partner dig into six to eight cases each month for the county.
Martin-Netherton either finds the family or proves the negative, that is, finds no next of kin. On occasion, there are odd stories. She runs into a person who has stolen someone else’s identity via a social security number — the deceased has the name and info of a living person who, if contacted, is shocked to hear she’s dead! Names, she tells me, can be reversed (Edward Anthony is really Anthony Edward), and primary relatives of the indigent will hide from the dead and hide themselves, preserving their anonymity. One woman notified was the mother of a decedent son with a “lifetime of troubles.” Moving to another state and scrubbing her past, she changed her name to get away from him: “How did you find me?” she exclaimed when the phone call came.
The downside is that under the Health Insurance and Portability Accountability Act law, the government keeps social security and health-related information private on people until three years after death. It may be a victory for privacy, but it reroutes Martin-Netherton’s hunt for identities through alternate databases and longer hours.
Tessa Lee says that if the forensic genealogist is unable to locate the next of kin, that’s the final straw. The medical examiner then gives the case back to the public administrator, who decides whether to bury or cremate.
In a Potter’s Field
I was moved to hear Lee describe how attached she and other researchers become to a decedent because of the life trail they uncover. “We learn everything about them,” she says. “We read their whole life story.... We find out their high school sports team or where their parents got married. Just because their family is not found doesn’t mean they are not mourned.”
It’s not that people don’t have a remarkable past; it’s that virtually everyone given to ground or wind is unremarked on — the indigent, more so. Their plot has been a potter’s field. The term is biblical in origin: red-clay-rich earth, reminiscent of blood soil, where Judas and criminals of his time were dumped. Mass burials and common graves — from shovels to bulldozers — have greeted ne’er-do-wells, the prison dead, those with small pox or cholera, the drowned, the suicided, the unfriended of days gone by. (Isn’t it fitting in our culture that the nothing the poor have in life they also have in death?) The roster of the discarded include Mozart, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, AIDS and Holocaust victims. Millions of Americans lie, bodies and ashes, in unmarked heaps; many cemeteries are full of indigent-taken space. If the graves’ real estate becomes valuable, prison crews will disinter and move tons of human soil to undevelopable land elsewhere. The potter’s field in Fresno, California, holds the bones and ash of an estimated 300,000 unknown and unremembered, a macabre 15 acres of grassless dirt and curblined rows of numbered mass graves.
An early mention of San Diego county’s role in burying the indigent comes from an 1880s doctor’s report: “It can truthfully be said that the Board of Supervisors has spent prudently the means at its command; that San Diego County has been liberal in dispensing charity, and that the sick and indigent have been well cared for.”
Presumably, the good doctor meant both before and after the sick and indigent expired. A newspaper ad from the time details that a donor can provide, for an exorbitant $8.78, an indigent with a pine-wood, “black stayned and White Lined Coffen.”
At the city-owned Mount Hope Cemetery, a potter’s field of some 4000 indigents has lain since 1869. The area so designated, according to a city spokesman, is Evergreen Cemetery, which contains “full-body burials, no cremations. Each burial is separate and there are no mass graves.” The only way an indigent has a plaque is if the family pays for one — the equivalent of claiming the dead. Which raises the question, does the family then owe the county for the burial cost? A few headstones dot Evergreen, in size, three football fields set side by side, a grassland (in rainy months) of tranquility with nothing to indicate that thousands lie there.
Walking through Mount Hope, I discover patches of lawn where maps indicate that many John and Jane Does, the indigents’ universal names, are laid. Historical accounts tell of three indigent caskets stacked vertically per plot. Again, no name, just lawn. I note two men ground-lounging beside graves of, I assume, loved ones — one eating lunch, the other chatting on his cell. To the living, how useful a headstoned plot can be.
One local guidebook steers tourists to Our Lady of Shoes, a statue given to the city in 1999 by the mayor of Leon, Mexico. The statue is placed by the trolley, which bisects the cemetery, without any directional signs to it. Our Lady is a barefoot woman who sits, pietà-style, cradling cowboy boots, her pedestal, a pile of shoes. The work represents Leon as “the shoe capital of the world” done to honor immigrants who began their trek to El Norte, died at the border, and were buried anonymously in America.
For years, Jewish indigents have been buried at Greenwood Cemetery, adjacent to Mount Hope. A spokesperson for the family-owned Am-Israel Mortuary tells me that the public administrator will call the mortuary when they have an indigent Jewish body. Typically, a death certificate or a family member who cannot pay the expense but can vouch for the person’s religious identity accompanies the body. The Jewish custom in is to bury Jews in Rabbi-consecrated ground, “houses of eternity,” followed by a service and prayers. “As a community,” the spokesperson says, “we take care of our own.”
Currently, La Vista Memorial Park and Mortuary contract with the county to bury the indigent. A website video — the park failed to respond to repeated calls and queries — describes a “pauper’s hill” at the National City site. The fee, charged to the county, is $2500 for burial, marker, and care. “To the unknown but never forgotten” reads the occasional headstone. One question I wanted answered: At the park’s Dia de los Muertos festivities, is time taken to remember indigent or nameless immigrants buried at La Vista?
And then there’s the sendoff the Patriot Guard Riders give to “veterans without families.” Every Tuesday, this mostly motorcycle contingent gathers at Miramar National Cemetery, home to 12,000 military dead since 2010, for a brief service. On a recent morning I saw about 20 old-guy vets — frosty beards, leather jackets and vests with emblems, hats with medals — line up, shoulder flags, salute, recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A bugler plays “Taps” and two Army servicewomen unfold and refold the flag, then present it to a Patriot Guard, the leader of the pack, Santa Ken, with the whitest beard of all. (On his back is their motto: “Standing for Those Who Stood for US.”) He reads the names of five servicemen who died “unaccompanied,” as the roster states: two Army, two Navy, one Air Force. Each had been interred in the columbarium a week before. Afterwards, Santa Ken asks each of us to touch the tucked-tight flag. From holding coffins to stroking flags, there is a ceaseless stream of unclaimed dead to remember.
Whither the anonymity of death
Only abandoned babies and indigent vets and Jews share group internment recognition. I wonder about memorials to others — suicides, the religiously affiliated, immigrant, or ethnic communities. At Mount Hope, there’s a Chinese and a Muslim plot. These, however, are grandfathered in: The 120-acre, city-owned graveyard has forbidden segregation since the 1960s. Such set-asides are disallowed as our society tries to democratize its burials and take a kind of postmortem pride in doing so.
It’s true that the county ministers to the indigent dead by law. But that’s as far as it goes. Or as far as it has gone to date. Perhaps there’s a frontier mentality still at work — those who can afford a memorial get one; all else are dust in the wind. I think both things are true: about burials, we are more humane and benevolent than ever, and we are more class-based and profit-driven than ever. Burial costs are steep — averaging around $10,000 according to US-funerals.com — pricing out many families. One reason: Corporatized mortuaries don’t cater to a person’s ethnicity or heritage unless there’s money to be made — casket upselling or elaborate limo-long funerals.
In the past two centuries, indigents were burned and bagged en masse, then scattered at sea. This eliminated a big county expense: land, internment, and maintenance or, what the city calls “weed abatement.” In our age, we are far less dragooned by these mass dispersals and, instead, believe an indigent’s remains deserves a share of the collective space among those whose families did not abandon them. That unclaimed pauper is just as likely to have been a fully worthwhile person as you or I.
But aside from kids and vets, does San Diego recognize the majority of those 422 dead indigents in any meaningful way? Do we “take care of our own”? Why, through all of this, do I still feel a stigma associated with burying and obscuring the poor?
In Los Angeles, each year at a Boyle Heights cemetery, the county buries more than one thousand indigent cremains — all of whom are identified by name, date of birth, and ethnicity. The rule is, they must be unclaimed for three years before internment. The indigents are memorialized and placed in a single grave. An interfaith service follows with denominational prayers for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Native Americans, and others. Some laud the ceremony as an ethical end. You may die alone, but once your ashes commingle with others, you’re no longer by yourself.
Public administrator Mark Sellars would give no personal opinion as to why the county does not identify or publish the names of the indigent dead. (Names of the homeless and the military dead, many of whom are indigent, are reported in newspapers every year.) Sellars follows the protocol of the California code. When pressed, he also declined to say whether he thought such privacy or confidentiality was a right the dead have. In the cases of abandoned babies and children, that right seems valid.
But for all others, I’m vexed why we — the royal we of the county — shun the Los Angeles model. Maybe in L.A., among mourners and spirit-seekers are people who, having read the indigents’ names, knew one — a parent, a child, a friend — and who, upon attending a public ceremony, were consoled or found meaning for themselves in the funereal rite, especially if they could not help pay for the burial, especially if their grief was intense.
Presumably, the welfare and institutions code for California has no overt moral base. And yet San Diego county has taken a moral stance by not releasing names. I think of this namelessness as paternalistic, an archaic “protection” for the dead. From what are they being protected? It’s not a matter of “outing” indigents. It’s a matter of government transparency. It’s a matter of ending the stigma. If the county provides services for indigents, alive or dead, if the military vets can read the names of patriots, how is it that a small percentage of dead indigents are identified, but the majority of them are not?