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A final farewell to the poor and the unknown

Next week, Bernalillo County – with the help of several really thoughtful people – will demonstrate its compassionate side as it takes care of its final duty for some of its citizens.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the county, in conjunction with Riverside Funeral Home will conduct a memorial burial service at Evangelico Cemetery in an effort to provide a dignified conclusion to the lives of about 100 unclaimed and indigent county residents who died here two or more years ago.

New Mexico statutes place the burden on counties for the final disposition of residents who died and whose remains were unclaimed by family members or who lacked the means to pay for their own burials. Bernalillo County has given the duty to its Procurement and Business Services Department. And the department has assigned the job to Rachael Maestas – who sounds like a very good person to have that duty.

Maestas says, “The fact that we can provide a dignified service to the members of Bernalillo County, it’s gratifying knowing that I can help others, but we don’t do it for the thank you at the end of the day. It’s each individual that comes through; it’s that one person, you have to make sure that one person is taken care of. I’m not just processing paperwork.”

Evangelico Cemetery has murals depicting religious symbols of different faiths, along with Southwestern plant life. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Evangelico Cemetery has murals depicting religious symbols of different faiths, along with Southwestern plant life. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The names of those to be buried Wednesday can be found on the county’s website – bernco.gov/unclaimed-indigent-cremation-program – but if you think one of your relatives or friends might be on the list and you’d like to try claiming the cremains before they are buried in a mass grave, you’d better act fast. You have until Tuesday to make arrangements to claim them.

The remains were cremated mostly in 2011 or 2012 by Riverside under contract with the county. The reason the county waits a couple of years to bury them is to give families or others time to discover their loss and claim the remains or time to come up with the $485 that is required to reimburse the county for the cremation.

Wednesday’s burial service is open to the public, so anyone – relative or not – may attend; no reimbursement required.

An area for indigent burials at Evangelico was donated by El Campo Santo Inc., which is part of the Atrisco Heritage Foundation and operates three cemeteries on the land grant. Evangelico Cemetery is just west of Coors at 3816 Blake Road SW.

Peter Sanchez, the CEO for The Atrisco Cos., says about the donation, “It’s the right thing to do in alignment with what we stand for in our companies. It’s one of those places where there’s nobody looking after these particular people in our society. …We’re just trying to do our part to show some compassion to humanity.”

Evangelico is a colorful place. Its surrounding walls are covered inside and out with murals depicting religious symbols of different faiths, as well as Southwestern plant life.

Maestas says that many of the people who are buried by the county are sent there by the Office of the Medical Examiner and often come from rehabilitation centers or nursing homes. Both the OMI and the county do all they can to locate next of kin, but sometimes they don’t exist, can’t be found, are unresponsive or lack the means to take care of final disposition themselves.

The burial ceremony is a community effort, and several local people have offered their services for this year’s event.

Music will be provided by Lydia and Ramon Saiz, while the honor guard of American Legion Post 60 under Cmdr. Joe Arnet will conduct military honors for any possible service men or women. Of course, before burying any ex-service members, the county makes sure they are not eligible for burial in a national cemetery.

Maestas says eulogies will be delivered by Pastor David Goodnight of Jesus First Church and Deacon Pablo LeFebre of St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

She says sometimes the service can really touch the heart.

“The first year, there was a gentleman there who was not related in any fashion to any of the decedents – however, he happened to live around the cemetery, I believe. And he took doves. So doves were released at the end of the ceremony out of the kindness of his heart. It’s really nice that you see a lot of individuals come forth to pay their respects to people who maybe didn’t have any loved ones or were estranged from their families. I just know that that left a lasting impression on me.”

This is the third year the county and Riverside have had a burial service at Evangelico. Before that, the contracted funeral home disposed of the cremains as needed, often scattering them in the Sandias.

Now, the containers of ashes marked with the person’s name are arranged and buried in a single casket each year. The county has installed a headstone for the site that says:

“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.

There are too many people buried by the county at Evangelico to list all their names at the site – more than 370 – and that number will grow each year. Names of people buried there in previous years can also be found on the county’s website.

Maestas credits Riverside Funeral Home for going far beyond its contract requirements in an effort to make this a dignified, more permanent effort to deal with the cremains.

“They are a big part of why this takes place,” she says.

TV star Judy Sheindlin, whom you’d know as Judge Judy, recently spoke before this year’s graduating class of Shiprock High School.

She ended her speech by saying that birth and death are the only two things guaranteed in life: “Everybody is going to enter, and everybody is going to exit. My wish for all of you is that your journey be a walk in beauty.”

I guess a big thank-you is owed by all of us residents of Bernalillo County to those helping our neighbors who might have ended their walks needy or alone conclude their journeys in a beautiful manner.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or dherrera@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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