Memorial service today for cremated homeless of L.A. More than 200 indigents die each month

only 5% of bodies are claimed

December 21, 1997|By LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

LOS ANGELES -- Thomas W. Etheridge could have been one of the 2,000 people whose unclaimed bodies are cremated and stacked in Bible-sized boxes at the Los Angeles County morgue every year, awaiting burial in a pauper's grave, forgotten by friends and family.

He died, was cremated and will be buried.

But he won't go unnoticed.

Today, Etheridge's good friend Michael Reyna will stand up in church and remember the life of the man during the first memorial service ever held for the homeless by a Los Angeles homeless coalition.

The ceremony will remember about 25 indigents -- out of the more than 200 who die every month in Los Angeles County, according to the county Department of Public Health.

"I don't think that anybody quite realizes that there are that many people dying in Los Angeles County each year, and things are going to get worse when they cut general relief next year," said John Horn, chairman of the San Fernando Homeless Coalition, which represents more than 70 organizations serving the homeless.

Often, the homeless lose contact with relatives, and family members don't realize they have died, said Horn.

Marlene Naumann, a county public health registered nurse, attributes the high indigent death rates to the conditions in which they live.

The homeless are likely to contract more diseases because they can't afford to eat well or have regular medical care, she said.

"These people don't go to the doctor for medical checkups. They only show up when they are in trouble," said Naumann.

"This is a serious problem, and a lot of people are so protected from what's going on. We're hoping to raise awareness so people can be more understanding and more helpful."

After years of living penniless on the streets of the valley, Etheridge was attacked, beaten and killed behind a 7-Eleven convenience store in July.

And although his friends fondly remembered how the 57-year-old always gave to others by escorting the indigent to local hospitals, they could not afford to give him a funeral.

"It kind of hurt a little because I thought he deserved a lot better," said Reyna, an advocate for the homeless and community liaison for Bridge Focus, a family counseling organization in Van Nuys.

The service today at the Sepulveda United Methodist Church in North Hills will include a candlelight vigil, a holiday dinner and a distribution of hygiene products and blankets.

The names of the homeless men and women who have died since January 1996 will be displayed on a scroll, and friends will get the opportunity to give eulogies.

"This gives us a chance to remember those people because they don't have family members, they didn't have a memorial service or funeral when they passed away," said Horn.

Though this is the first year a homeless memorial service will be held in the valley, for the past 40 years Los Angeles County has held a memorial service in East Los Angeles for the roughly 2,000 indigents it inters every year, according to the Rev. Philip J. Manly, coordinating chaplain at the USC University Hospital.

"The cremains are held for three years in the hopes that some family member would come forward and claim the ashes, but obviously many hundreds of thousands don't over the years," said Manly, who has conducted the service free for 25 of those 40 years.

The number of indigents cremated by the county varies from year to year, but it has been as high as 2,500, said Albert Gaskin, crematory caretaker at the Los Angeles Crematory Cemetery in East Los Angeles, where the service is held.

Gaskin estimates that 95 percent of those cremated go unclaimed.

The other 5 percent are claimed, but their families can't afford a proper burial.

Labeled by name and identification numbers, the boxed remains are piled 9 feet high on more than 60 shelves in the crematory building, which lies behind a tiny stone chapel at the cemetery.

The county's memorial service, which will be held in January, is a quiet affair, typically attended by a handful of crematory workers and county officials, said Manly.

"We have a lot to be thankful for because if anything happened to us we would be cared for," said Manly.

"We have a moment of silence as we think of these people who were human."

The ashes of the 2,000 unclaimed bodies are then poured into a common pauper's grave in East Los Angeles, which is identified with a simple marker denoting the year of interment.

"It's kind of an eerie feeling because you can't help but wonder about them, because even though they are in these little boxes they represent human life," said Manly.

"I'm always awed by the number of people [cremated]. We may all have come there with problems of different sizes in own lives, but when you leave you leave with a sense of wholeness and thankfulness for what God has given us."

Like the county, the Homeless Coalition hopes to make the service a yearly tradition in the Valley to give survivors a sense of closure, said Naumann.

"For anybody who has a loved one or friend, this is a way of saying goodbye," said Naumann.

"We want to give a sense of human worth. Whether they're homeless or not, their life has value."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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