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Valuing life: A thin line between claimed, unclaimed


What will happen to you when you die?

I don’t mean, Will you go to heaven? Or, Will you be reincarnated?

I mean, What will be done with your physical body?

Every year, Doña Ana County winds up as caretaker of a number of bodies of the deceased. These are people who died alone, often homeless. County officials work to locate someone who will claim the bodies. As a practical matter, the bodies are cremated. Sometimes relatives are quickly found and the bodies claimed. Other times, not.

If no one has claimed the bodies in two years, they are interred.

When he served as the county’s public information officer, Jess Williams (also a recently retired Las Cruces Bulletin editor) presided over a formal ceremony for these unclaimed bodies.

On May 26, at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Williams again led a ceremony, the first one since 2019.

I attended the proceedings, as I did once a few years ago. The service lends dignity and honor to these lost souls.

It also made me wonder, for the 31 who were interred, What happened along their life’s journey that led them to being unclaimed?

These are not John Does or Jane Does. They have names, Social Security numbers, birthdays and death days. The most recent group ranged in age from 39 to 82.

Many of them had friends, but those friends did not have the resources to claim the bodies, which requires a $600 payment to the county. If the deceased were homeless, their friends were likely also homeless, and had no steady job or another way to come up with $600.

Not long ago, I read an article in which a scientist calculated the value of the elements that make up the raw materials of the human body. We’re mostly oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, with some calcium, nitrogen and phosphorous, then a bunch of trace elements. This scientist calculated the value of those for a 175-pound human to be $576, interestingly close to the $600 charge by the county.

Most of us are blessed to have family – spouses, siblings, children, parents, cousins, close friends, others – who would step in upon our passing and not only claim our body, but arrange for memorial services, burial and all the logistical and financial settlements. Most of us have people who will mourn our loss.

Not so for these 31.

One of the deceased, Timmy Jiro Johnson Jr., was 55 when he passed. Had Timmy Jiro Johnson Sr. also passed? Was, or is, there a Timmy Jiro Johnson III? For each of those 31 people, questions are all we really have.

Without Williams, though, and the county allowing for this service, we wouldn’t even have these questions. The small boxes into which their cremains are placed would have been quietly laid in the dirt, likely by a lone grave attendant, with no one mourning or even marking their loss.

Williams is an ordained minister and has delivered many local eulogies, performed wedding ceremonies and provided other support services. I’ve heard him speak at several of these, including my oldest daughter’s wedding. He always does a wonderful job, well-suited to each occasion.

His remarks May 26 were among his best. Perhaps the most poignant part of his eulogy was the simplest.

Near the end, he pronounced each name of the deceased, and asked the 30 or so people in attendance to repeat the name. That happened 31 times. Williams saying the name, the audience repeating it.

Simple but powerful. As a group, we acknowledged who these people were and that they shared time with us on this Earth. You were here, we were saying. You mattered.

Without this service, this simple message would not have been heard.

Does it matter in the whole scheme of things? Maybe, maybe not.

But our recognizing these people made everyone in attendance a little more human, and maybe a little more compassionate. Would things have been different for the deceased if they had received a little more recognition in life? A little more compassion?

Those of us fortunate enough to have someone to claim us, to mourn us, should be grateful. All it takes are a few different choices, a few different twists of fate, for a human’s life to go from one who is claimed to one who is unclaimed.

It’s a striking reminder that we have, as Williams said, “reasons to cherish every sunrise and drink in every sunset.”

Richard Coltharp