Los Angeles: The Modern-Day Shanghai of Unclaimed Souls.




(ThyBlackMan.com) L.A. has yet another tragedy and dubious distinction. It has more unclaimed dead than any other county, maybe even most countries, in the nation. Each year an annual burial rite for the unclaimed dead draws hundreds of people to a cemetery in Boyle Heights where the unclaimed dead are both ceremoniously and more often unceremoniously dumped. The number of those unclaimed that are buried en masse number in the thousands.


A recent report on death and dying on L.A. streets drove home this brutal and heart wrenching point. It noted that every day on average six or more individuals are found deceased on L.A. streets. This revelation instantly reminded me of the horrifically impoverished conditions in semi-colonial Shanghai, China in the 1920s. Then it was common to find dozens of corpses lying on the streets there each morning.

The nightmare scene in L.A. with the mounting death toll on the streets marked L.A. as the modern-day Shanghai. How did this happen? Why is this happening? What are public officials doing about it? And most importantly just who are those most likely to be among the countless number of unclaimed deceased persons in L.A. County.

Three county agencies are tasked with dealing with the unclaimed deceased They are hard pressed to keep up with the constantly mounting number of unclaimed deceased. Their job is mountainous. They must determine the cause of death, establish the identities of the deceased, try to track down relatives and next of kin, and determine how and when to dispose of those who remain unclaimed.

A note on the designation “unclaimed.” In decades past, those who died without any known immediate family or relatives to claim their remains were almost always the poorest of the poor, or indigent, and that’s what they were called. In prior years, they were simply dumped in “potters’ fields” These were plots in public contracted space in cemeteries for the poor. In almost all cases, they remained nameless, faceless, eternally unknown, and always forgotten individuals.

The new term for them is unclaimed because many of them do have family, known relations, and even substantial assets at the time of their deaths. Yet for a variety of reasons from family estrangement to indifference, their remains are unclaimed.

In recent years, there has been a spate of investigations, studies, reports, articles, and a top selling recent book, The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels, that have taken a close look at the burgeoning crisis of unclaimed deceased that many cities wrestle with, L.A. topping the list.

All have sought to answer the thorny question of just why so many people die every day and are collected alone and in isolation in homes and apartments, and even more tragically on the streets. In many cases there is not the slightest hint of human notice, concern, let alone compassion for them.

One example of this callousness is how county investigators assigned to investigate the death of a presumed indigent person who dies alone brand their task. They call it a “trash run.” This is not simply a testament to the routineness of their task. It speaks volumes about the insensitivity and out and out dehumanization of these individuals. They are the classic social outliers, not worth at least initially of being considered real people, who deserve to be regarded with the customary dignity that we pay lip service to in how society is supposed to regard human life, all human life.

The problem of dealing with the tens of thousands of unclaimed bodies in L.A. County is further complicated by county departments that are under resourced and understaffed. The caseloads of investigators tasked with wading through all the layers of bureaucratic procedures for disposing of the unclaimed deceased are staggering.

One example. In most cases, the unclaimed deceased are cremated. For many years the grisly business was handled by two individuals at the L.A. County run crematorium. Then after budget cutbacks the job fell to one individual. That individual also had to do double duty and serve as a guide, escort, and informant for visitors to the burial site.

In addition, the County also made no provision for shipping the remains of the unclaimed deceased after cremation to a family member or relative who agreed to claim the deceased remains. An unclaimed veteran fares slightly better. They are buried at a veteran’s cemetery in Riverside. The VA pays some of the costs for the urial. But they are only a tiny percent of the vast number of unclaimed.

The search for answers to this daunting tragedy is ongoing. But in truth, the answer to why so many die with so little concern, and with so little recognition and dignity, is simple. The unclaimed are viewed not as responsible, productive individuals who are an integral part of society, but marginalized and stigmatized outcasts who are unworthy of a death with dignity. Again, this is yet another L.A. tragedy.

Written By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

One can find more info about Mr. Hutchinson over at the following site; TheHutchinson Report.

Also feel free to connect with him through twitter; http://twitter.com/earlhutchins

He is also an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book is From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press).