Longform

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.
@rule:

@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.'"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin