Laid To Rest: A Dignified Farewell For The Poor And Unclaimed In Maricopa County

By Carrie Jung
Published: Thursday, June 30, 2016 - 10:37am
Updated: Friday, July 1, 2016 - 8:48am
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Carrie Jung/KJZZ
White Tanks Cemetery.

You can find the White Tanks Cemetery in the far West Valley at the end of a dirt road.

This humble plot of dusty land is dotted with organ pipe cacti and surrounded by a chain link fence. It's here, where a handful of volunteers and a group of prisoners lay Maricopa County’s poor and unidentified to rest every Thursday.

Among those being buried on a recent morning was 73-year-old Andrew Barton.

"We have placed flowers on Barton’s casket as a sign of reverence for this human being created in love by God," recited volunteer chaplain Louisa Milstead, as she began the ceremony.

Milstead was joined by eight women who are currently serving time at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office. They’ve volunteered for this duty and are known as the chain gang.

This group of women plays a significant role in burial process. Like, inmate and volunteer Jaclyn Knaub who delivered a reading— "Lord make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred let me so love. Where there is injury pardon."

After, Milstead sprinkled holy water on the gravesite and a dirt cross was drawn on the casket by one of the inmates. Following a short prayer, the group moved to the next coffin. And eventually a third. While all of those being laid to rest this day were identified, no family turned up at the service.

"Whatever brought them to this place at this time is not for any of us to judge, but I think we all deserve a final farewell," said Milstead, who's been leading these ceremonies for the last eight years.

"I’ve been in religion all my life," she added. "But this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It’s the most rewarding ministry I’ve ever done."

For Jaclyn Knaub, who was booked for drug and theft charges, volunteering to help with this process has been enlightening. She said it’s taught her to appreciate her life and not take things for granted.

"This gentleman that we just buried is just a year older than me," she explained. "I could be the one in that casket right now with no family and no friends."

The indigent burial program is administered by the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary office. This year they received about 450 applications for burial assistance from families who said they could not pay. They approved 420.  

"They’re just so relieved there’s going to be an end, as to how this is going to play out and that they get to have maybe some peace of heart over their loved one and their disposition," said Catherine Robbins, the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary.

She says demand for this service is growing and hopes a new $25,000 budget increase will help her colleagues identify more people and serve more families. Each burial costs the county a little over $1,000.  Some of those costs go to finding family or loved ones, if a body is unclaimed.

"It’s very rare that we can’t find somebody whether it’s their prior landlord and they knew their neighbors who then knew they had a daughter," Robbins explained. "So we’re able to connect the dots to find the family."

Back at White Tanks ceremony, Chaplain Louisa Milstead wrapped up the day’s service.  

"You let your servant go in peace your work has been fulfilled," she said with the final reading.

The three graves will be marked with a small brass disk engraved with a name, if one is known, after each simple gray caskey is lowered into the hard earth, joining the roughly 5,500 others below the ground.

Read More From The Business Of Dying Series:

Part 1: How Maricopa County Is Planning To Attract More Medical Examiners In Face Of Shortage
Part 2: Arizonans Overwhelmingly Choose Cremation Over Traditional Burial
Part 3: Death Becomes Her: More Women Enter Once Male-Dominated Funeral Service Industry
Part 4: Laid To Rest: A Dignified Farewell For The Poor And Unclaimed In Maricopa County
Part 5: Organ Transplant Surgery: How Death Can Sometimes Mean New Life

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