In the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Evergreen Cemetery stands with tombstones held high. Some show inspirational passages, some boast lifetime accomplishments, others carry distinctive photos of the deceased. On weekends - as mariachi music swirls in the air - families come, one by one, paying respects with flowers and finding solace in their loved ones' final resting place.
Not all of Evergreen's permanent residents get visitors, however.
For the hundreds of thousands of cremated remains of unclaimed kin buried in a nearby potter's field, deemed as the Los Angeles County Crematorium and Cemetery, there's nothing more than a simple marker denoting the year they were put back in the earth. Their names don't live on tombstones; rather, they are linked with the almost 5,000 other unclaimed bodies currently on the L.A. County Coroner's list.
All that remains is an identity on paper: their birth and death date, whether their eyes were blue or brown, or their hair was gray or black.
Though technology has allowed the number of cases where family hasn't been located to decrease in the last four years, the unclaimed log, which dates back to the 1960s, has grown longer as more and more relatives under the strain of the newly dubbed “Great Recession” find they cannot afford costs involved in private ceremonies and burials.
“We've seen a marked increase in the amount of people that actually request county disposition,” said investigator David Smith, working at the county coroner's office. He believes that “unclaimed" may be a misleading term that suggests loneliness or no family at all, when that's not always the situation. "There's a lot of cases here where there's family; they just don't want anything to do with them.”
According to Smith, the crypt at the coroner comfortably holds 300 bodies. At nearly the halfway point of 2010, the number of bodies currently hovers at 248.
Workers at the coroner's office cremated 756 bodies last year, compared to 708 bodies in 2008. Statistics reveal that for both numbers, next of kin was located and notified for nearly 70 percent of the bodies. In 2007, cremation totaled 655 - no next of kin could be discovered for 245.
“The majority of the cases down there, the family knows about,” said Smith, adding that if it's not the economy, it's the detachment individuals experience toward kin and want "nothing" to do with them.
“People are becoming estranged from their families,” explains investigator Joyce Kato of the coroner's office. “They choose to not have contact with them. They're concerned initially, but then after that, it goes out of their mind and they go on with their lives.” She also said there are circumstances where next of kin will take the time to pick up property, yet won't do anything with the body.
Still, it's not just families who are feeling the pressure of the downturn in the economy. The county morgue, which took care of the unclaimed - cremating them in their facilities at no cost after the coroner had been unable to locate next of kin in over 30 days - stopped accepting bodies from the coroner due to budget issues and a general increase in bodies in February 2009.
At an average cremation rate of 20 bodies per week and limited crypt space, the coroner hired two private crematories, which charged $150 per body, leaving taxpayers to front the bill, totaling more than $100,000 in 2009.
“For the first time in history, the coroner is actually having to pay to have bodies cremated,” Smith said. “We had to take the money out of other funds.”
After cremation, the remains are transported to the county cemetery and deposited in neat black boxes which are shelved for two years to see if any family steps forward to claim them.
If they do, it comes at a price tag - $352 to be exact.
And if they don't, a decedent's ashes will be poured into a common grave along with the ashes of hundreds of others.
“Once they go in commons graves, there's no way to separate them,” said Father Chris Ponnet, director of spiritual care at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.
Though bodies come from all backgrounds - from those who died naturally to many with drug overdoses - dignity after death is made slightly easier for homicide victims, who have a higher percentage of finding next of kin who actually claim them. According to Smith, this is partially due to the fact that the L.A. County District Attorney's Office offers funeral and burial assistance to decedents who qualify through the State Victim of Crime Compensation Program and that they usually have stronger connections to family.
Ponnet, who oversees a memorial service that county workers organize for unclaimed kin at the end of each year, said part of the reason why there has been an increase in bodies definitely has to do with the economy, though there's a good portion who are just estranged from family.
There was John Brumet, a 47-year-old Caucasian male who died in 2003 at a Bellflower motel, just a day after he checked in with prescription medication, a wheelchair and a cane. It took seven years, but the coroner's office received a call from next of kin who had found him on the coroner's website just last month. By that time, Brumet had been cremated and buried at the potter's field.
Then there's James Dillon, a 74-year-old Caucasian male who died in November 2009. A veteran and a recluse in Santa Monica, he proved one of the lucky ones. It took less than six months for his family to claim him.
Paul Dillon and his brother James, in fact, weren't very close. When Paul left to go into the Armed Services in the 50s, he didn't see his brother for another 40 years - until they met again for their mother's funeral.
“He said 'I don't have a computer and I don't have a phone, I don't want to be bothered,' ” Paul Dillon recalled. Once, James Dillon's nephew even tried to visit his uncle at his Santa Monica home, but he wouldn't open the door.
“I think he had mental problems,” said Paul Dillon. “It was a mess.”
James Dillon did, however, give his address to Paul Dillon, and so the latter sent him Christmas cards every year. It wasn't until his and his sister's holiday greetings to their brother were returned in 2009 that Paul Dillon began to notice something wasn't right.
“I called up the Santa Monica police department and they were nice enough to a send a car to his house, “ he said. “They told me it was being renovated and that no one had been there for months.”
Paul Dillon filed a missing persons report, then waited for news which didn't surface for at least a month. He received a call from a deputy sheriff telling him that his brother died.
He searched through 700 names before he found his brother's on the coroner's website, leaving him frustrated about the detective assigned to his missing persons query - who left him in the lurch on his brother's whereabouts. “It kind of upset me,” he said. “I wanted to call and ask him, 'How come you didn't see this?'
“Nobody in my family was close, so somebody dying wasn't a big thing,” he said. “It's just part of life, something that you deal with, although I wished that he had had a better life.”
While emotional distance separated the Dillon brothers, for some decedents ending up on the unclaimed list, it's physical distance -a coil of thousands of miles.
With 10 million people within its borders, Los Angeles County is a melting-pot home to a considerable foreign-born population - almost 3.5 million, according to the 2000 Census.
Nazar Cakirciyan was among them, up until 2000, when the 74-year-old died and was deemed to have no next of kin by the coroner. Cakirciyan now shares a grave in a potter's field with other decedents who remain unclaimed.
An Armenian born in Turkey in 1926, he had immigrated to the U.S. decades ago. He had no children, and was either divorced or widowed, one of his neighbors told the coroner. Cakirciyan's story is one that doesn't necessarily reflect the inner workings of his ethnic background and defies the tight, social and family-oriented nature of Armenian relationships.
Upon his passing, officials mailed a letter to a Mary Cakircyan in Warwick, R.I., but there was no indication of how she was related to Nazar Carkirciyan. Born in 1922, she herself died in 1988, according to the Social Security Death Index, but the letter was dispatched to her address anyway, just in case another family member lived there.
Cakirciyan's case is a difficult one; it's possible that the variation of the last name he died with is not the same one he was born with. Without knowing his exact birthplace in Turkey, it makes the search for next of kin almost impossible. A portion of his last name suggests that he might have come from Cakirdogan, a village in Van province that remained populated by Armenians for centuries.
Numerous emails and messages to individuals with similar last names have proven unfruitful, although there might be one lead in Lyon, France. He also might have a brother in Turkey, though there isn't any information on him, according to the coroner.
The coroner did report his death to the Turkish consulate, as they do with all foreign-born residents, as required by law.
The success rate of tracking next of kin through the consulate has been touch and go, especially to Mexico, the most common consulate the coroner contacts. According to Kato, the coroner's office has not had much success with locating next of kin across the border, due to lack of resources and having to deal with many similar names.
A recent development, however, has helped investigators. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has provided access to 1.5 million fingerprints to assist coroner's officials - who did not have this database before, Smith said.
Yet for immigrants spread across the L.A. landscape in search of a better life, death still looms - and it can be accidental. “They didn't plan on dying,” Smith said. “They planned on coming up here, making their money, securing their future, and then life happens. Something goes wrong and then all of a sudden there they are.”
Despite the toll the economy has taken on the coroner's office, digital advances revolutionize how next of kin has been found - and found so efficiently that while the number of cremations have gone up - only around a quarter of those who have been cremated remained kin-less.
“We have a whole lot better resources,” Smith said. “There's skip tracing, tracking, several proprietary databases, programs we use from LexisNexis and Ancestry.com.”
Officials also use the Department of Motor Vehicles fingerprint database, albeit without much success, due to smudged and poorly rendered fingerprints.
One case involved a 17-year-old runaway hit by a train and was only identified and found when the principal of his school was browsing the coroner's website looking for another family member. According to Smith, the DMV had the print, but because its database wasn't searchable, it took a year for the coroner to identify him.
“To me, this is where the system failed this child,” he said. “He deserved better. All the pieces of the puzzle were out there, but the DMV is an island and the Department of Children and Family Services is an island and privacy is an island. Those don't have connective bridges unfortunately."
With more than 5.9 million drivers registered with the DMV in L.A. County, its records could be a valuable resource.
California has been collecting fingerprints in some form since the 1940s, though the process was voluntary up until July 1982, according to Jan Mendoza, spokeswoman for the department's Office of Public Affairs. The DMV switched to electronic-imaged prints in 1990, to obtain more accurate prints that were efficient time-wise and less messy, she said.
In addition to programs and databases, the coroner's office also has another valuable resource: a group of volunteer genealogists who spend time working on cases to aid in putting the life back into the dead.
In just two years, unclaimedpersons.org has grown to become a purely volunteer organization of 400 members working with coroners across the county to solve cases, including those within Los Angeles County. Founded by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who passed the reigns on to other volunteers, Unclaimed Persons has solved 150 cases thus far.
“Their success rate is just incredible,” Kato said. In 2008, the group solved 30 cases; in 2009, the number jumped to 38. This year, it has helped solve three, but there may be more waiting in the wings, as Kato has received steady information about certain files but hasn't had time to process them all yet.
“I think the thing that motivates me the most is the thought of bringing peace to families,” said Skip Murray, case manager for Unclaimed Persons, who is not a professional genealogist. “In the end, everyone who dies was someone's child, sibling, parent, spouse, cousin, niece or grandchild. No matter what our pasts were - even if we made some very poor choices in life - our families deserve to have peace, know what happens to us, to have closure, to have an end to the worrying and wondering.”