Her ashes were almost buried in a mass grave. Hundreds will be unless claimed soon

The cremated remains of Fresno County’s poor and forgotten to be buried in Potter’s Field

North Fork woman saves the ashes of her brother's sweetheart before they can be buried in an unmarked mass grave. The rest are dead whose families can't be found, have abandoned them or can't afford to pay for the ashes.
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North Fork woman saves the ashes of her brother's sweetheart before they can be buried in an unmarked mass grave. The rest are dead whose families can't be found, have abandoned them or can't afford to pay for the ashes.

LaVerne Blanchard walks across a barren dirt field littered with weeds, trash and broken glass with a feeling of terror and gratitude that a loved one was not buried here.

The cremated remains of her brother’s sweetheart, Erma “Faye” Harley, would have been buried in a mass grave in this desolate stretch of the Fresno County Cemetery had she not recently found Harley’s name on a list of unclaimed ashes.

LaVerne Blanchard of North Fork walks through the Fresno County Cemetery, also known as Potter’s Field, where mainly indigent and unknown people have been buried in mass graves over the years. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Those who loved Harley thought she was buried here years ago, after family members couldn’t afford the cost of retrieving her body from the coroner’s office in December 2014, but no one realized the cemetery for Fresno’s poor and abandoned looked like this.

“It’s terrible … we have a pet cemetery that’s prettier than this,” Blanchard said Wednesday while walking across rows of mass graves, only marked by concrete curbs imprinted with numbers.

The next mass burial in the cemetery is Sept. 13. People can still pick up ashes of more than 800 unclaimed dead. Some died as far back as 2009 – the last time the county had an “abandoned/indigent burial service” for those whose family could not afford a burial or cremation, or whose family could not be found.

Blanchard said her brother, James Cosper, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, could only afford to pay approximately $900 in two installments over two months to get Harley’s body after she died, but that the coroner’s office told him it had to be paid in full.

“You go sign up for food stamps in two hours if you’re indigent, but you can’t get a loved one’s ashes or body?” Blanchard said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Years of anguish

Blanchard called the coroner’s office after Harley died. She recalls being told that remains are held for family for 30 days, and then anyone can claim them. Blanchard then asked what happens if ashes are still not claimed.

“He said, ‘After 30 days, then we bury it in a mass grave in the Fresno County Cemetery,” Blanchard recalls.

Two flags mark mass graves, No. 55 and No. 56, containing the remains of 308 people at the Fresno County Cemetery in 2004. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

She first thought Harley’s daughters were going to pick up the ashes, then later learned they didn’t have enough money to do so. By the time she learned that, Blanchard thought Harley’s ashes were already buried.

In an attempt to keep more anguish from her brother, Blanchard lied to Cosper, saying Harley’s ashes were sprinkled across her desired final resting place: a wildflower-laden mesa in Northern California, beside the ashes of her younger brother.

Blanchard has felt guilty ever since. That finally changed last week, when she was surprised to learn the ashes have been sitting in a Fresno County storage room for the past four years.

She found Harley’s name on a list of unclaimed remains.

“Our hope is to return as many of these cremains to loved ones prior to the burial,” a statement from the Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office reads, “so families can hold a private ceremony if they so choose.”

Retrieving remains

There’s normally a cost associated with picking up a body from the Fresno County coroner’s office: $865. It’s now being waived for a short time as a courtesy since it’s so near the mass burial, and because of the large volume of unclaimed ashes.

The office has given away 27 boxes of ashes since last week.

Blanchard was able to retrieve the ashes by simply providing Harley’s name and how she knew her. She wants others to know how easy the process now is. She wishes it was easier after Harley died.

“I think it would have been much better if when a person dies, you are able to claim a body at that time, even if you don’t have the funds,” Blanchard said. “Perhaps they can have a form that people fill out.”

There is no such form. That’s addressed in the “frequently asked questions” section of the coroner’s website: “What if I have no money for funeral expenses (Indigent Cremation)?

“The County of Fresno does not have financial assistance available,” the webpage reads. “For those who cannot afford funeral services, or in cases when we are unable to find next of kin, the County provides a direct cremation. There are no provisions for services, viewing or individual burial.”

However, Tony Botti, spokesman of the Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, which took over coroner services in 2015, said if family members don’t have enough money to pay for remains at the time of death, remains can still be retrieved at a later date. He said the department asks that family members stay in contact with the coroner’s office about when a payment is coming.

Botti said there is no deadline for when a mass burial has to be held, but that each mass grave can hold around 400 boxes of ashes.

The department is using up the last mass grave plot in the Fresno County Cemetery this month. It will have to find more land for future burials.

The coroner’s office had hoped any wanted unclaimed remains will be picked up by Friday, but if others come forward after that date, “we are more than happy to help them,” Botti said.

‘No one would want their loved one buried here’

Harley’s ashes were mailed to Blanchard because she lives in North Fork, in Madera County.

Harley was renting a home on Blanchard’s property with Blanchard’s brother when she died. Harley’s body ended up at the Fresno County coroner’s office because she died in a Fresno hospital.

Blanchard recalls Harley as fiery, funny and kind – like her brother, who now lives in Arkansas with his son.

Harley and Cosper were childhood sweethearts who reunited later in life. Blanchard said they were considered common-law husband and wife because they lived together so long.

She’s happy that Harley will finally be laid to rest in a beautiful area.

The Fresno County Cemetery is surrounded by normal cemeteries, covered with lawns, trees and visitors. In the dirt field where the mass graves are, there are only a few markers.

The well-kept green grass of Holy Cross cemetery comes into view, right, while the barren dirt rows of mainly unmarked graves of the Fresno County Cemetery are seen at left in this drone photo on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Officials don’t permit families to place headstones in this cemetery unless a plaque lists the names of every person buried in a particular mass grave.

Enrique Reade looks over a headstone in 2004 of a 1995 mass grave of cremated remains of unclaimed people in the Fresno County Cemetery. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

The only other person in this dusty cemetery on Wednesday afternoon when Blanchard first arrived was a homeless man.

“I think if people came out and saw this, no one would want their loved one buried here, or friend, or anyone,” Blanchard said. “I don’t think people realize this is what it is. I think it would be good for people to see this picture.”

Unmarked concrete strips and dried out weeds mark the site of a mass grave west of Fresno in this photo from 2012. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

How to claim remains

The cremains of more than people who died since 2009, listed on the Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office website, can be picked up for free by first calling 559-600-3400.

Abandoned/Indigent Burial Service

10 a.m. Sept. 13 at the Fresno County Cemetery, 242 N. Hughes Ave., Fresno. The public is invited to attend. The memorial will include burial rites and prayers from clergy.