Thursday, February 19, 2009

Buried by a Chain Gang: White Tanks Cemetery

White Tanks Cemetery

In a fascinating article from 2007 for the ezine of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Angela Le documents the burial of indigent residents of Maricopa County by a sheriff's chain gang.
It is a sad situation for the dead to be buried by conscripted strangers in a desolate desert cemetery. However, I am struck and deeply moved by the fact that a poorly funded county has determined that even the least of it's residents deserves the basics of a respectful burial and a solemn ceremony. I am reminded of the protocol used in ground zero when even a small portion of a victim's remains were discovered. Work stopped and all present stood at attention as a hearse slowly drove that precious piece of a person from the site. The public would not think of allowing a less respectful treatment of an unknown person, yet so many of us decide not to 'make any fuss' when a person we know and love dies, even when funeral services are well within our means.
Here is an excerpt from Ms. Le's article

Sister Mary Ruth Dittman is one of the few who pray at a child’s grave.

When there’s no one to care, chain gangs bury the poor and the unknown of Maricopa County. Half an hour west of Phoenix, a chain-link fence encircles a desolate gravel lot. The sign out front says “Sheriff’s Chain Gang at Work.” Inside are hundreds of rows of coaster-size brass markers engraved with real names or simply Jane Doe or John Doe.
This is White Tanks Cemetery, the indigent burial site where Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s chain gangs bury more than 300 bodies a year. Since 1994, the site has received more than 2,984 bodies, including babies. There are no trees or grass or a sense that anyone comes to visit—other than a few scattered artificial flowers and a small American flag and Teddy bear resting next to the only headstone.
White Tanks Cemetery is funded by Maricopa County taxpayers. “Therefore, every expense is either standard or very minimal,” said Roger Coventry, a deputy of the Maricopa County public fiduciary. The public fiduciary determines who is considered indigent.

A chain gang prisoner prays at a burial in White Tanks Cemetery.

Toward the back of the lot, 15 women work together to lift a blue casket out of a van and prepare it for burial. They wear military boots and black-and-white striped shirts and pants with a pink shirt underneath. This is the only female chain gang in the country.

“It made me sad when I helped lower the body in the grave and saw there was no one here for him and wondered what he did that would have led to this,” said Bernita Bentley. She volunteered for the chain gang to get out of the “hole” (prison lockdown). “It made me think of my family and if something like that would ever happen to them.”

This ceremony was for James Bell, who had died of coronary artery disease. He was buried in the cemetery because no family members claimed his body.
A chaplain recited the 23rd Psalm 23 and sang “Amazing Grace” with the chain gang members, interrupted every few minutes as squads of five jets from Luke Air Force Base flew over. “I don’t even notice the jets any more,” said Kevin Blair of the Maricopa County’s facilities management.

Male chain gang members represent the family as they lower a casket.
Blair and his staff used to bury the bodies until the chain gang took over 18 years ago. “The services have become less significant, and we [staff from facilities management] became indifferent when the bodies were buried,” he said. Blair and his staff still come to the burial services every Thursday.
The chain gang members represent the deceased’s family and friends. Malantha Sanchez called this an honor. “When you’re a child of God, you can represent anybody. They are like my brother or sister.”

A round brass marker is the only way for a family to identify a grave.

Since the county doesn’t want to spend a lot of taxpayer money, it provides only the bare minimum for burials. Although more expensive, the county decided to do burials rather than cremations because of liability for any fault that might occur. “Typically people don’t sue for a burial,” Coventry said, “but if there’s a problem, then we can do disinterment and other arrangements can be made. The families can authorize a cremation if they want to.”

Sister Mary Ruth Dittman of Phoenix has been coming to the burial services in the desolate gravel lot every Thursday since 1991. “I was expecting lush green grass,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting this.” While reading the obituaries one day, she noticed the name of a 13-month-old baby. “[I] thought it was a baby I had cared for once at one of the hospitals I volunteered at,” Sister Ruth said. “I found out where the funeral was and attended.”
Every Thanksgiving, Michael Santoro holds a candlelight vigil with other volunteers from AndrĂ© House, a Phoenix ministry for the homeless and poor. “We pray for those who have died in the last year and place flowers over their graves,” Santoro said. “We believe there are three deaths—the death of the body, the soul and then the memory. We want to do this candlelight vigil to preserve the last death … the memory.”

It took all 14 women to lower James Bell’s casket. The chaplain sprinkled holy water on the casket while a woman at either end of the grave threw dirt on the casket. After Bell’s service, the female chain gang prepared for the next five burials. The chaplain flipped back the pages in the Bible to the 23rd Psalm.

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