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Memorial service held to honor 150 Salt Lake City homeless people whose remains are unclaimed

The Very Rev. Martin Diaz listens as Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, reads the name of someone who died and whose remains were never claimed during a service at The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

The Very Rev. Martin Diaz listens as Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, reads the name of someone who died and whose remains were never claimed during a service at The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The Cathedral of the Madeleine sat against a gray sky, the heavy ornate wood doors thrown open as a procession escorted by a Salt Lake bagpipe band walked up its steps Tuesday. With the pipes fading into their last notes and the rain softly falling outside, attendees sat in the pews of the cathedral with white papers clutched in their hands.

The Very Rev. Martin Diaz stood at the pulpit and began with a prayer, before softly speaking.

"What a wonderful and beautiful sign that we're connecting with the heavens," Diaz said of the rain.

Following a prayer and a hymn, about 50 people gathered in a line between the pews and approached a microphone one by one. Holding tea lights in one palm and paper in the other, each read several names totaling 150. The names belong to homeless people who died on Salt Lake City's streets in the past year and whose remains are unclaimed and uncollected.

Artificial candles flicker beside attendees at a service honoring more than 150 people who died and whose remains were never claimed at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Artificial candles flicker beside attendees at a service honoring more than 150 people who died and whose remains were never claimed at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Funeral bells tolled 50 times as the names were read aloud solemnly by attendees, some returning to the pews to continue to listen. The high ceilings echoed the tolls, the names and an occasional cry from the public. The service was held to claim the deceased as the attendees' "family" and honor their lives.

The tolls carried weight for attendees.

"Funeral tolls are just arresting, compelling. It's like a state of prayer," attendee Russell Bell said. "It was very poignant."

Bell added that it was remarkable how well-attended the service was and the solemnity of those who read the names — s sentiment echoed by another attendee, Robin Huddleston. "I felt a really strong presence," Huddleston said. "I felt very felt a lot of comfort in the room, a lot of heart."

Nellie Estrada prays with others during a service at the Cathedral of the Madeleine honoring more than 150 people who died and whose remains were never claimed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Nellie Estrada prays with others during a service at the Cathedral of the Madeleine honoring more than 150 people who died and whose remains were never claimed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

The memorial service was organized by the Neil O'Donnell Funeral Home in collaboration with the Cathedral of the Madeleine. A program was first held at the funeral home, where the remains are being held, before the procession proceeded up the street to the cathedral to perform the rest of the service.

Neil O'Donnell Funeral Home Chaplain Shantel McBride began planning the event last year when she came across the stacked black boxes containing the cremated remains of those unclaimed. The image weighed heavy on her and that's when the suggestion of a memorial arose.

"This event is a representation that no one's alone. Everybody is loved and there's a lot of love out here and they matter. They're enough and they're not going to be just left unnoticed — there's people that will claim them," McBride said.

Inside one of the funeral home rooms sat a table with little black boxes spread across the table, small white labels marking names. The corner they sat in didn't take up much space but the presence of the boxes felt heavy.

Boxes containing unclaimed cremated remains are pictured during a service honoring those individuals at Neil O’Donnell Funeral Home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Boxes containing unclaimed cremated remains are pictured during a service honoring those individuals at Neil O’Donnell Funeral Home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Bell recognized the boxes easily. The box which used to hold his brother's unclaimed remains was identical and now sits outside at his home.

Bell said his brother, who died two years ago, wasn't homeless but was on the margins of society. He described his family's relationship as "estranged enough from having the emotional intelligence of grieving." When it came to collect his brother's remains, no one in the family wanted them.

Bell, along with his wife, eventually collected his brother's remains to be spread in Colorado. His wife said that her father had raised her to "honor the dead" and would often repeat the phrase as she grew. She remarked she thought of her father and her mother while sitting in the pews of the cathedral.

"When I saw him in a suit, I knew he was praying the rosary or going to a funeral," she said.

So the couple spread the remains of the brother and attended a service to claim those who hadn't been.

"Our value system is unwell," Bell said of society. "We don't know what human beings are. So many of us are in all degrees of provision and privilege and still don't have a picture of our nobility." He continued, "It's an age-old problem."

Funeral home director Shawn Wiscombe said that the remains of those who were homeless go uncollected and unclaimed more often than he'd like. He added that some families provide enough information for a death certificate and then are never heard from again.

And when the remains continue to be uncollected and unclaimed, the funeral home lays them to rest. Wiscombe added that every individual receives an obituary and a record of burial, in case someone comes to find them later on.

But even if that doesn't occur, McBride said being uncollected does not mean forgotten.

"I'm just glad that we were able to come and do that and claim them as family because they did serve a purpose and then their mission was complete," McBride said. "They were all in that room with us, you know, I do believe that."

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