Laid To Rest: A Proper Burial For The Poor

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In lieu of names, this headstone was engraved with a quote: "We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other. Dedicated to the Citizens of Bernalillo County."

On a blisteringly hot summer afternoon, about 40 people gather in the Evangelico Cemetery in southwestern Albuquerque. Deacon Pablo Lefebre leads the service and begins with a prayer

"Because God has chosen to call our brothers and our sisters from this life to himself," he says, "we commit their bodies to the earth, its resting place. For we are dust, and to dust we shall return."

This isn't your average funeral. The light gray casket about to be lowered into the ground is filled with the cremated remains of 87 county residents.

"I have buried them from fetuses to 100 plus," Lefebre says, "but I have never done this, and I feel very honored to be here today to say goodbye to those who were with us at one time."

Some of the deceased were unidentified or left unclaimed by their next of kin. Others came from families who couldn't afford to reimburse the county for their remains, often spending years waiting for a final resting place.

As workers begin covering the casket with dirt, Joe Sais plays the guitar and sings "Por Siempre Adios (Goodbye Forever)."

Today's service is part of a new program run by Bernalillo County. It's now an annual program that pays for burials and memorial services for people whose remains have been in county possession for at least two years, waiting for someone to either claim them or pay for them.

Charlie Finegan is the owner of the Riverside Funeral Home. He holds the contract with the county to provide cremation services for the unclaimed and indigent. And he played a big role in making this memorial possible.

"You know, it's not just a callous process that we're going through," he says.

Finegan's facility sits just next door to the funeral home and chapel. The building has gray cinder block walls and a tin roof. On the far end are two crematories. A body enclosed in a cardboard box is awaiting cremation Finegan then points to a steel shelving unit on the east end of his facility.

Right now the remains of about 100 people are lined up neatly in small white boxes, waiting for their turn to be buried. Finegan says it's basic, but it helps to keep costs down, allowing his funeral home and the county to afford the things they think are far more important, like the grave site and the memorial service. This is something Pamela Hirst, who couldn't pay for a friend's burial, says she doesn't take for granted.

"It is a great burden when you can't properly do what you want to do in your heart for someone that you've loved so much," she says.

For Hirst, that someone was Joe Speer. He was a poet who lived his life performing and traveling the country in a green Volkswagen van. Hirst still has trouble talking about Speer. Two years ago, he died from pancreatic cancer. And for a while, Hirst says she carried around a lot of guilt because she couldn't afford to give him a proper burial.

"Joe and I were minimalists," she says. "We lived in that van, and he was very concerned 'cause we didn't really have the money for caskets, and burial, and plots and stuff.

And if the county hadn't been able to provide this service, Hirst says she doesn't know what she would have done.

"I had no option," she says. "Get out a credit card? I don't know."

But because of the service, Hirst says she finally has some closure.

"I can hardly put words to it," she says. "But the value is immense for the heart and soul.

The headstone where Joe Speer and the 86 others are buried reads "We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other."

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