170 dead bodies unclaimed from DC Now the city honors them.


On a cold Saturday in October, Norma Lomax came to the Congressional Cemetery in southeastern Washington to say goodbye to her brother. She wore a pin bearing his name, Alan J. Barnes, and an image of him superimposed on a cross floating in the clouds.

Unlike some famous people buried at the cemetery – FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, DC “mayor for life” Marion Barry – Barnes does not have his own headstone. He is among hundreds interred over the past three years in Congress through what the mortuary trade calls “public disposal” after their bodies went unclaimed.

Barnes said neither relative knows when his brother, who was 68, died in a DC hospital during the pandemic in 2020 without leaving family contact information. His ashes were buried with others in Congress in 2021, and she only learned he had died in February.

Now he rests with others under a stone bearing the seal of DC’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

“He never married. He had no kids. He was just a loner,” Lomax said. “He’s not alone anymore.”

A dignified resting place awaits the poor and infamous in a famous cemetery

The ceremony, conducted by the medical examiner’s office, is the third time in three years the district has honored those who have died in the city whose bodies have not been claimed. The annual ceremony, which authorities say costs about $7,500, follows similar ceremonies that began in 2019 and resumed after a pandemic hiatus.

In an interview, DC Chief Medical Examiner Francisco J. Diaz paraphrased 19th-century British politician William Gladstone: “How a society treats its dead is a reflection of how society treats its living.

It’s important for people who lose a loved one to remember that person was important, Diaz said. Survivors of those who receive a public disposition sometimes seek medical examiners decades later, seeking details of how they lived and died. Ritual-marked burial can provide this necessary closure.

“I think it’s a time when a life, however briefly, is remembered, and remembered in the presence of people who care about them,” Diaz said.

Preparations for the ceremony began in July, when the city sent hand-signed letters to relatives inviting them to Congress. No gravedigger or forklift was on site – Lily Buerkle, sales and funeral director for the Congress site, said the ashes had already been buried in underground vaults.

At least in theory, according to Buerkle, a relative or loved one could come decades later to claim someone’s remains. They will be there – individually wrapped and marked.

“Just because a person is unclaimed doesn’t mean they were an unloved member of their family,” Buerkle said. “Families lose contact for many different reasons.”

Cost is also a consideration. The neighborhood offers burial assistance to those in need, with assistance limited to $1,000 for a funeral or $650 for a cremation. Even with this help, some families cannot afford to reclaim their “deceased persons”, as officials put it. Others whose bodies are unclaimed may not have a close circle of family or friends – or may simply have outlived everyone they know.

At Saturday’s ceremony, the Rev. Thomas L. Bowen, director of the mayor’s office of religious affairs, addressed a crowd of about 50 people that included many members of Barnes’ family as well as supporters of the Sans -shelter, of which at least 69 died in DC. Last year.

Before officials read out the names of the 170 people who were being memorialized, Bowen said none of the congressional celebrity burials were more important than those receiving a public disposition.

“We should all be entitled in death to things that may not have been given to us in life,” he said.

Adams Morgan mourns homeless man who died, steps from his childhood home

The day before the ceremony, Vikram Surya Chiruvolu handled costs and logistics that many families couldn’t: a trip to a funeral home to collect the remains of a loved one.

Chiruvolu, a computer scientist turned adviser, worked with other homeless advocates to bring attention to the death of Miguel Gonzales. Gonzales, who grew up in Adams Morgan, died a block from his childhood home on a cold March night earlier this year.

When Chiruvolu learned Gonzales was being made available to the public if his remains were unclaimed, he paid the medical examiner’s $485 cremation fee and drove his 2012 Ford Expedition Limited an hour south of the district. to Heaven Bound Cremation Services in White Plains, Maryland.

There, in a pink and teal office behind a Jamaican restaurant and nail salon, Chiruvolu signed a form to claim Gonzales’ ashes. Within moments, all that remained of a man who was once a neighborhood fixture was delivered in a black box in a black tote bag bearing the name of the crematorium and a cremation certificate that read, “Michael E. Gonzales”.

A bit more more than 10 minutes later, Chiruvolu was on his way back to DC Later this month, he plans to have Gonzales, who has no known living family, buried in Maryland with the woman who killed him. raised. He also arranges for DNA analysis in hopes that Gonzales’ living relatives can be found.

Although Chiruvolu prevented Gonzales from being publicly available, he still attended Saturday’s ceremony to honor others like him. He can’t be sure Gonzales, or any of the dead, knows what their bodies are made of – what effort and expense it can take to ensure someone has a proper burial.

It was just good to be there, according to Chiruvolu.

“This physical plane is not the panacea,” he said. “We are bound to each other by something more than what is easily, physically present.”

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