Resourcing Leaders & Transforming Lives

Service for the Unclaimed Dead of Los Angeles County

Service for the Unclaimed Dead of Los Angeles County

December 6, 2017 we gathered around the fresh grave in the lawn behind the county crematorium, blinking in the bright Los Angeles sunlight – county workers, elected officials, community members, and family members. Chaplains and clergy from many faith traditions sang and offered blessings, including Rev. Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder, the Presbyterian Staff Chaplain at LAC+USC Medical Center. The Street Symphony Chamber Singers filled the cemetery with song as mourners laid flowers and burned incense and sage. We came together opening our hearts to honor the lives and legacies of the 1,461 unclaimed people who were at last laid to rest.


A simple gravestone engraved with “2014” now marks the place where they are buried. How can it be that so many bodies go unclaimed in Los Angeles County? There are many reasons – Some people die alone in nursing homes and hospitals. Some were homeless. Others were babies who died at birth. Some people die and their families can’t afford to “claim” them. In the days before the service, the undertaker placed their ashes in a single mass grave. “2014” — the year they were cremated — now marks the plot.

– Rev. Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder (pictured center) serves as Presbyterian staff chaplain at LAC+USC Medical Center. The Presbyterian Chaplaincy is made possible through the Consortium funded by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, the Presbyteries of the Los Ranchos, Pacific,San Fernando and San Gabriel. To find out more about this ministry and how you can be involved, please contact her at



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