Rev. Cliff Dawkins, right with blue hat, and a crew at Lakeside Memorial Gardens Cemetery position a casket for burial. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy

Atlanta’s poor: Anonymous in life, an unmarked grave in death

Donald Rucker, a former chemical plant worker, visited a niece he hadn’t seen for years on Christmas Eve and stayed up all night reminiscing. Pilar Ortiz, a retired custodian, made it hard for family members to get close to her. David Foote, a home remodeler, was a Detroit Red Wings fan who ate healthy and still liked to ice skate, even at age 75.

The three all lived quiet lives on the edges of society in metro Atlanta and were strangers to each other. One was black, one was born in Guatemala, the other white. But all shared one thing: Poverty. All were laid to rest last week, side-by-side in a trench offered to Fulton County by the lowest bidder.

The three and two others were among the 300 deceased who are put to rest each year by the county. They used to be called paupers but the current and more politically correct term is indigent.

“No bells and whistles,” said Rev. Clif Dawkins, standing over the muddy pit at Lakeside Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Palmetto. “It’s a simple, decent, respectful funeral.”

I come from a large, tight-knit Irish family and have attended scores of funerals through the years. They are generally teary affairs with many well-dressed friends and family coming from far and wide to reacquaint and grieve.

I had heard about Rev. Dawkins, the Fulton County chaplain, who figures he has officiated at perhaps 4,000 funerals during his time at the county. In our throwaway society, the ultimate discard can be a human life, so it is often his job to make sure someone is there thinking of the departed. Even if he doesn’t know who they are.

Performing the duties can be hard work, physically. Dawkins, cemetery co-owner Jim Keesee and a couple other men had to lean forward and fight for footing in the sloppy clay to push a coffin on an industrial dolly toward the trench. Then a crew lowered the earthly remains of Rucker. Then Ortiz. Then Ruby Mae Evans, whose daughter, Glenda, one of a few family members to show up, sat in a car nearby dabbing tears.

Keesee paused for a minute, standing on the field of muddy red clay to apologize

“This looks terrible,” he admitted, before pointing to a grassy area. “But look over there, it’s county (burials), too. We move it all over the cemetery so the indigent aren’t all in one spot.”

The area he pointed to was a well-tended field with an occasional marker. Perhaps one in twenty indigent graves are marked, probably fewer. The government pays for the funeral director ($600) and the cemetery ($1,027) but does not spring for a marker. So most of those interred remain much as they were in life — anonymous.

About 20 percent of those buried each year are homeless. Others are forgotten elderly or people split off from their family or those who are penniless whose families don’t have the means to bury their dead.

Dawkins tries to get a bit of personal info about the deceased, asking the funeral home, the county or family members, if any, to let him know anything about the life that has just ended.

“People often say, ‘Oh, these are just homeless bums.’ It’s easy to dismiss people if you don’t know them,” said the reverend, wearing a blue toboggan hat to ward off the cold.

Five hearses converged on the wide-open cemetery and each delivered its cargo. Dawkins then placed his hands on the caskets — usually cloth-covered plywood or a fiberglass blend — and quietly uttered a well-worn prayer.

“We commit his body to the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”

If a family is available (and two were on this day) then a small service is held under a blue tent near the road, so family members don’t get muddy.

The poor are buried in plots of six. A smallish grave was added to the trench for the body of a baby boy, but the body wasn’t cleared by authorities for interment, so five were buried in the plot.

“We record them as they go in,” said Keesee. “Fifty years from now, if you want to find your Uncle Willie, you could.

“Three years ago, we buried a man out here. A year later, his sister called. She had hired a private investigator to find him,” Keesee recalled. “She said, ‘I’m not going to have him stay in a pauper’s grave. I want him moved.’ But she came here and changed her mind. She bought a headstone and moved on.”

Keesee and Dawkins chatted amicably as an earth-mover finished the process. The two men, who meet twice a week, rain or shine, have gotten to be friendly, and we discussed the previous night’s Alabama-Clemson national championship game and other non-morbid topics.

We walked over a couple of the few marked graves from recent burials. One was a woman who died at 29, the other a 63-year-old man nicknamed “Junebug.”

“Most of these indigent people don’t live long,” said Keesee. “They live a pretty rough life. They worked all their lives, they never had money.”

Ms. Ortiz’s granddaughter, Miriam Sanchez, hadn’t heard of her passing until I called.

There was no split in the family, or anything like that. The 84-year-old lady just didn’t like to be a burden to others or even want them around. Sanchez had her grandmother live with her but the elderly woman moved out. And then changed her phone number.

Glenda Evans said her mother, Ruby Mae, 75, worked in a cotton mill when she was younger and died in December of breast cancer. Friends and family were able to scrape together enough money for a decent casket to get her buried weeks later.

Hopefully, in the spring, Glenda, a pre-k teacher, will get enough back in income tax refunds to afford a grave marker.

“I want to visit my mama,” Evans said.

It’s tough being poor. In life, and in death.

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