POTTER'S FIELDWHERE THE POOR AND THE ABANDONED OF MARICOPA COUNTY ARE PUT TO REST
Felix Solis steps down into the hole with a tiny pink box. Clutching it close to him, he closes his eyes and prays aloud.
"Lord, I hope you will accept this baby into Heaven, where things are better than they are here," Solis says, his voice cracking. "Please watch over this baby, okay? Thank you, Lord. Amen."
Solis carefully sets the little coffin onto the earth of Lot 11, Row 2, Space 6, at a section of this cemetery called "Babyland." He hoists himself out, grabs a shovel and tosses in a spadeful of dirt. It takes him and two other men only a few minutes to fill in the hole.
Before moving on, Solis silently fashions some baling wire into a makeshift crucifix, then sticks it into the mound of fresh dirt. He crosses himself once, then walks away.
And so ends the funeral of Baby Ramos, a stillborn female whose teenage mother had abandoned her weeks earlier at Maricopa County Hospital.
"Damn," Felix Solis says to himself. "Damn."
Solis isn't a man of the cloth. He's a multitattooed, oft-convicted, 33-year-old jail trustee doing time on a drug rap. His job on Thursday mornings is to bury the poor, abandoned and forgotten at the Twin Buttes Cemetery, Maricopa County's potter's field.
The prisoners bury men and women with no known survivors, or those whose next of kin are too far away in time and distance to care. They bury murder victims, the homeless, aged nursing-home residents and unidentified men and women who may have just been passing through the Valley of the Sun.
They also bury those whose mourning survivors just can't afford a better sendoff. Perhaps saddest of all, the prisoners bury children born to loving but destitute parents, and babies whose young parents had abandoned them.
Many tears have watered this ground since January 1, 1952, when 60-year-old Porter Benson became the first person buried here. In those days, the cemetery was in an isolated spot. Now it sits within striking distance of golfers at the nearby Fiesta Inn, a loud shout south of busy Interstate 10 and the Broadway curve.
Baby Ramos' funeral is over at 8:30 on a smoggy, late-February morning. Volunteer clergy usually are present to say a few words of farewell, but because of illness and a scheduling error, none showed up today.
Felix Solis knows nothing about the baby he prayed for, only that no one from her family was here to say goodbye: "Holding that little coffin, I just felt so sad. That's why I said something. I believe in God. I'm earning brownie points."
"Yeah, the probation officer likes to hear when we do something good," another trustee pipes in, a man in his 20s jailed for failing to pay child support.
Solemnly, Solis points an index finger skyward.
"I don't mean brownie points with no probation officer," he says.
@body:Mary Helen Valenzuela and Merry Shutt are waiting for their day's appointments to arrive at the old courthouse in downtown Phoenix. Their offices are in Room 12, tucked away in the basement of the venerable building, built in 1928.
The two women work for Maricopa County's Public Fiduciary's Office, which operates the county's indigent-burial program. Among their tasks is to determine if the county should pay the $385 it costs to bury an adult at the Twin Buttes Cemetery, or the $254 for an infant.
If the county agrees to bear costs, it's then up to the survivors whether to bury or cremate their loved ones. The county will provide a burial at Twin Buttes if the dead have been abandoned or are unidentified.
"We're it," says Valenzuela, who has been doing this for nearly three decades. "The people who come in here are really at the mercy of Maricopa County. You see that pain and you try to do something to help them."
But far more often than not, Valenzuela and Shutt tell survivors they'll have to make other arrangements. During a one-year period that ended last June, the county paid for just 300 of 1,465 "referrals" to its indigent-burial program. Frequently, that's because the deceased left assets that next of kin could tap into.
But the two women are hardly cold-blooded, bottom-line government bureaucrats. "Look to this day, for it is life," reads a Sanskrit homily that hangs on Valenzuela's office wall.
"We're here for the living as well as for those who have died," she says, as if to emphasize the homily. "The easy part of the job is to say yes when someone comes in. But we also pick up on the freeloaders, the ones who have money but don't want to spend it on a funeral."
And then, Valenzuela says, there are the folks who just don't seem to care: "They'll say, 'He or she is already dead. Do what you want with them.'"
After Baby Ramos died, her mother called Valenzuela from the hospital. The baby's father was in Mexico, the young woman said, and she lived with her grandmother in a poor South Phoenix neighborhood.
Baby Ramos' mother promised to call again for more burial information when she got home. But she didn't. Valenzuela later sent the girl a certified letter, but still got no response. Several weeks after Baby Ramos died, Valenzuela officially declared the infant abandoned. That set in motion her burial at Twin Buttes, which was attended only by prisoners and a few unrelated visitors.
A 21-year-old Glendale woman named Cynda shuffles into the basement office with her mother and her two young sons. Cynda's 16-day-old prematurely born baby, Anthony, died at St. Joseph's Hospital two days earlier. Cynda says she's flat broke and needs assistance.
Merry Shutt provides coloring books and crayons for Cynda's two boys as she begins her interview. A former schoolteacher, Shutt has been doing this job for about three years and she loves it. As an interviewer, she is nonjudgmental, nonconfrontational and a good listener. Shutt maintains this attitude, she says, even when she must deal with parents suspected of killing their own kids through abuse--not the case this time.
Weeping, Cynda tells Shutt the baby's father skipped the state after she announced her pregnancy. She used to work for a Burger King, Cynda continues, but quit. "I stressed out when they made me a shift leader," she says. For more than a year, she and her sons have existed on welfare and food stamps. She doesn't have a car and relies on her mother for transportation.
Shutt tries to put Cynda at ease, talking about her own grandchildren as she takes notes. It soon becomes apparent baby Anthony will be one of those referrals Maricopa County will pay for.
Cynda says she wants Anthony's body to be cremated. "I'd like to get an urn or something," Cynda tells Merry Shutt. "I don't know where my life's gonna lead and I might just want to keep it with me."
"You can do anything you want," Shutt replies gently. "It's going to be a teaspoon about the size of your hand because the baby's bones aren't formed or calcified yet. The nice thing about cremation is, you can take your baby with you. It's sad because he lived 16 days. You got to know him."
Shutt calls a funeral home and makes arrangements for the cremation as Cynda and her mother listen in. After she hangs up, Cynda's mom thanks her profusely.
"We didn't know what to do, borrow or whatever," the mother says. "We've been suffering."
"The economic times aren't good right now," Shutt says, "and we understand that. Bless you, really."
Cynda collects her two boys and leaves, still tearful, but clearly more at ease.
"Sometimes I think to myself after someone leaves, 'How do these people manage?'" Valenzuela says. "Sometimes you feel compelled to go out to the cemetery and lend some support to people who have no one. It's a kind of finishing up for everyone, including us."
@body:The term "potter's field" comes from Biblical times. The New Testament says that after regretting his betrayal of Jesus, Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver to temple elders. With the money, they bought a burial ground in which to inter "strangers."
These days, most but not every urban area has such a burial ground. In Los Angeles, the bodies of indigents are cremated; unclaimed ashes later are placed in a mass grave. New York City is more the norm: Its potter's field is located on an island in the East River, tended--as in Maricopa County--by prisoners.
Until a few years ago, few other than next of kin and county officials paid any attention to Maricopa County's potter's field. Then, in the mid-1980s, Richard Herrmann--a deacon at St. Agnes Church--and his wife, Gertrude, heard in passing about the county burial site.
"It seemed very important to do something out there," Herrmann says. "The fact that you are poor or homeless or abandoned or whatever when you die makes it even more important for you to have someone to say a prayer for you. It's the least we can do."
He and his wife called around to Valley clergy, and secured several promises of help. One of those who answered the Herrmanns' call was Joe Leonard, a 64-year-old lay minister who works for Motorola.
A few weeks ago, Leonard--everyone calls him Chaplain Joe--and Herrmann spent their Thursday morning praying for the about-to-be-buried at Twin Buttes. Standing beneath the cemetery's lone shade tree in a denim jacket and black sneakers, the blunt-talking Chaplain Joe speaks of his calling.
"I tell people that I have a wonderful group of parishioners," he says. "I tell them my congregation dwells among green, green grass in a quiet and thoughtful place. And I've got kids who are absolute angels."
This time, the jail trustees won't have to dig the graves and say the prayers. There are nine funerals scheduled, one after the other.Mary Helen Valenzuela and Merry Shutt have come over from the Public Fiduciary's Office to observe and participate.
Everyone in the cemetery moves to the grave site of an unidentified teenage murder victim known as a "Jane Doe." Last May 28, the girl's skeletal remains were discovered in the desert west of Cave Creek. She was wearing a black bow in her hair, a flower-print blouse and pair of stretch jeans with lace around the ankles.
Phoenix homicide detective Chuck Gregory hunted down leads for months after the girl's body was found. He scoured files, talked to school officials, canvassed neighborhoods and studied computer printouts. But he got nowhere.
Gregory collected what evidence he needed--dental imprints, DNA samples and other materials--then had the body released from the county morgue. The unsolved case of this Jane Doe affected him deeply, Gregory says, though he couldn't make it to her funeral because a newer, more solvable case had grabbed his time and attention.
"I wish there was a better way to end this than a Jane Doe burial in a county graveyard," the detective says later. "I feel real bad about this."
Deacon Herrmann asks Mary Helen Valenzuela and Merry Shutt if they'll say the prayer at one of the funerals. "We're all ministers," he reassures them, gesturing toward prisoner Felix Solis, whom he is aware had prayed aloud for Baby Ramos a few weeks earlier. "You don't have to be ordained to say goodbye to someone."
A funeral-home hearse pulls into Twin Buttes with the body of 52-year-old Cecil Nolan. For years Nolan had looked after a carnival lot in west Phoenix in return for free rent in a mobile home on the property. According to the county medical examiner, he died from liver disease. Divorced years earlier, Nolan apparently left no children.
After determining Nolan had few financial assets, Mary Helen Valenzuela tracked down one of his brothers in South Dakota. The family hadn't seen or heard from Cecil for a long time, the brother told her. Neither he nor anyone else in the family wanted to pay for his funeral.
That's how Nolan's body ended up at the Twin Buttes Cemetery.
The prisoners stop milling and bow their heads in respect as Valenzuela and Shutt approach the teal-blue coffin. The two women look at each other briefly, then begin the Lord's Prayer in unison. A few seconds later they say, "Amen."
Before the day's work is complete, there's the funeral of another deceased infant whose mother deserted her after she died, and whose father deserted the mother long before the birth.
Baby Johnson's little coffin rests atop two plastic Carnation milk crates. Chaplain Joe Leonard lays his right hand on top of the wooden box and opens a tattered book to a "Prayer for Abandoned Children."
"When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up," he says in a stentorian voice that resounds through the cemetery. "Then the Lord will take me up. Amen."
One of the prisoners turns away, wrought, he explains later, with concern about his own young daughter. Merry Shutt starts crying quietly. So does Chaplain Joe himself.
"I can't help myself," he says as the prisoners cover Baby Johnson's coffin with dirt. "You just wonder, for what purpose was she put here."
@pq:The prisoner silently fashions some baling wire into a makeshift crucifix, then sticks it into the mound of fresh dirt. @body:
@pq:"We're here for the living as well as for those who have died."
@pq:"My congregation dwells among green, green grass in a quiet and thoughtful place. And I've got kids who are absolute angels."
@pq:The prisoners cover Baby Johnson's coffin with dirt. "You just wonder, for what purpose was she put here.
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