Suppose you were hosting an event for a crowd north of 1,400 people. Where would you have it?
That’s a pretty serious venue. Unless your name is something like Biltmore, you can probably scratch the back yard or dining room off the list. But hey, your local hotel ballroom may fit the bill. Depending on the nature of the event, a few church houses or large theaters or auditoriums would work.
When was the last time you were part of a crowd that big? I was there a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve got to tell you, it was noticeable. Parking was a bit of a challenge. The venue was a little crowded. The energy was palpable. Lots of noise and excitement.
And no, I’m not referring to a Black Friday sale at Walmart.
But I want to tell you about a different kind of assembly. One where 1,430 people came together and hardly anyone noticed. Parking wasn’t a problem. Noise wasn’t an issue. In fact, all was deathly(!) quiet, at a venue that was shockingly small.
The location: a mass grave.
Just two days ago, 1,430 people were all buried together in one hole that appears to be about the size of two typical graves. Yes, they had been cremated. And only a handful of the living were there to see it.
Now since most of the people who read this live in the United States, I should hasten to say this didn’t take place in some war-torn Middle Eastern or African country. This isn’t the result of some government slaughter of the innocent or horrific virus outbreak in a third world country.
Nope. This happened right here at home. Location: Los Angeles, California.
And what if I were to tell you that this is an annual event, dating back to 1896?
The setting: the Los Angeles County Crematory and Cemetery – a five-acre plot on the corner of 1st and Lorena Streets.
These are the forgotten. The unclaimed, as they call it. The people buried Wednesday died three years ago, sometime during 2013, and since then no one – no one – has bothered to claim the bodies.
Some were homeless. Many were nameless. Some of them came from families who just didn’t have enough money to give them a decent burial – despite the fact that the county waives the cost of cremation for those who can’t afford it.
Dana Bartholomew of the Los Angeles Daily News reports that the number of Jane and John Does buried at the county graveyard within the past decade has ranged from 1,379 who died in 2012 and were buried last year and 1,798 who died in 2006 and were interred in 2009.
That’s just in one city, granted one of our largest.
An assembly three times the size of my (large) graduating class – the same size of my Sunday morning congregation – near the same size of the entire student body of most of the places where I teach.
Every. Relentless. Year.
I recognize that L.A. is a destination city for many different reasons – the climate, the entertainment industry, its close proximity to the Pacific and to Mexico. But the same thing is likely playing out on a smaller scale in cities all over North America.
I appreciate the fact that there are those who have the respect and decency to do more than just dig a hole. Dana Bartholomew again: “The simple but solemn ceremony, with prayers conducted in many languages for each of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths, has become an end-of-year ritual at the five-acre potter’s field.”
Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe has attended this event annually for 20 years; he retires after today. He said,
“This holiday season, many of us are reminded of how fortunate we are to be surrounded by our loved ones…These are individuals who, for one reason or another, have no one but the county to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial…Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of them mattered.”
Each one mattered… but likely died believing they didn’t.
This sad reality speaks to me on many different levels. Let’s start with those still living who may be part of that grim statistic a decade or two from now. For God’s sake and yours, call home! Get help. Go home! Get help. Say you’re sorry. Get help. Get sober. Get help. Connect, connect, connect! There are people who still love you or will love you if you just reach out.
It speaks to me about the people who appear to have it all together. They show up in our houses of worship, our institutions, our places of business. And behind the polite smiles, they’re wondering if it even matters whether they’re there. Let’s send them a message. With our words, our facial expressions, our actions, let’s communicate to them: You matter!
This reality – especially at this time of year – reminds me that no matter how desperately lonely life can be, there is hope. Christmas is an annual reminder that God gets it. When He invaded history it wasn’t in a hospital or cathedral. He was born in a cave in a profoundly lonely manner. Then the Lord in his wisdom blazed the joyful news in the night sky to a group of social outcasts, the shepherds. (Imagine those dudes being the first to sign your baby book!)
And what the message of Christmas tells me is that wherever you or I may be on the loneliest day of our lives, regardless of who knows us or shows us, none of us is forgotten.
None of us is unwanted.
None of us, bless God, is unclaimed.
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