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On a warm late-September morning, a small crowd gathered in a Southeast Albuquerque cemetery to honor 108 people they did not know.
The public memorial service represented the final goodbye for 72 men and 36 women – six of them military veterans – who died in Bernalillo County, but had no one to claim their bodies or pay for their burials.
The county’s unclaimed and indigent burial service is the “right thing to do,” County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said during Thursday’s ceremony at Fairview Memorial Park.
While county governments are legally required to bury or cremate unclaimed individuals who died in their jurisdiction, Bernalillo County lays them to rest with a full-fledged service. There was a eulogy, a bagpiper and a reading of all 108 names as attendees placed flowers on two caskets containing cremated remains.
“We don’t know much about the lives that they led; we don’t know about their ups, their downs that they went through, the great achievements they achieved throughout their lives, or the tragedies or loss they may have endured. But we do know, at the end of their lives, they probably weren’t receiving the dignity, honor and respect that they deserved,” Deacon Stephen Sais of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said during the eulogy. “But, today, we get to change that.”
The county has conducted the memorial burial annually since 2012, laying to rest over 1,000 people so far, according to online reports. The shared interment sites are marked each year with a headstone; previous inscriptions include “We celebrate each of you, we give you a proper farewell, your place in our Community will never be a shell” and “Every life leaves a light that will be remembered.”
O’Malley said she did not know the exact circumstances that left the individuals without friends or family to arrange their services, but suggested that it may sometimes be forces beyond their control.
“I don’t think we should judge them,” O’Malley said, adding that they still deserved a special goodbye. “This (service) is the least we can do.”
O’Malley, Walt Benson and Charlene Pyskoty all represented the Bernalillo County Commission at the event. County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales also attended, as did several county employees.
Lisa Sedillo-White, the deputy county manager overseeing the unclaimed and indigent cremation program, said county staff go above and beyond their legal duty with the decedents in their care.
“We do have to recognize that, here in Bernalillo County … we do have individuals that, for whatever reason, whatever walk of life they had, didn’t have family by their side,” she said. “But we in Bernalillo County on this day … we are their family.”