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Remembering the forgotten, both here and gone

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An unpainted wooden cross lies on the earth, sunken to the degree it is level with the soil. Part of the cross is eaten away, likely due to termites.

The cross rests underneath a small, rough stone with an undecipherable name.

This is a gravesite, one of maybe 100 or so at a pauper’s cemetery in Las Cruces.

The cemetery is no longer active; the most recent burial probably came more than 25 years ago. It is neatly maintained by Doña Ana County, tucked between some county facilities in the middle of Las Cruces. Periodically, some youth groups or charitable organizations will pitch in to help clean up.

According to state law, any unattended deaths found in New Mexico are tended by officials in the county where the body is discovered. If the bodies are unclaimed, they can be sent to UNM Hospital for an autopsy, and are then returned to their home county, and families are sought. Today, the bodies are typically cremated upon return. In the case of Doña Ana County, the cremains are held for at least two years in case a family member appears to claim them.

Most years, the county will hold a small ceremony at St. Joseph’s Cemetery to bury a half dozen boxed cremains that have passed the two-year time frame.

Previously, though, the bodies were buried in cemeteries like this unmarked one, which was active roughly from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Here, there is a marker with many of the known names, some with just first names, or a moniker such as “Baby Smith.” One listing says simply “Fourteen Unknown.” At the bottom of this stone is the following phrase: “Dedicated to the Forgotten of Doña Ana County Both Living and Deceased.”

We may wonder how a human being becomes “forgotten,” but it happens every day in many ways. Many become forgotten, as the stone states, while they are still alive, making it almost inevitable they will be forgotten in death.

Many of the deceased in this cemetery are clearly remembered.

The main stone is decorated with many small metal toy cars, maybe an homage to the number of infants and babies listed on the stone. There’s even a small metal F-117 Stealth fighter, reminiscent

of the sleek jets that used to fly from nearby Holloman Air Force Base. Maybe one of the deceased was a pilot, or worked on these planes.

There are flowers on other graves, and others, some more than 50 years old, show signs of recent updates and attention, maybe from remaining family members.

One grave is particularly elaborate, with a large upright headstone, including a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Most, though, are simple wood crosses, painted white.

I’ve always found cemeteries sacred, fascinating and thought provoking. There is mystery and wonder regarding the deceased, even more so with the ones in this pauper’s cemetery.

I’m glad these souls were given this bit of grace.

I believe we can still enjoy the relationships we had with our friends and loved ones who have passed on. We share their spirits inside of us. And often we’ll hear the wise voices of old friends or grandparents, the hilarious responses of moms and sisters to certain things we do, lessons learned from fathers and brothers, and the sweet memories and tender moments of children and lovers.

You don’t have to wait for Dia de los Muertos or Memorial Day.

It’s always a good meditation to pay respect to those who helped weave the tapestry of who we are, and also to those we never knew.

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