The Nameless and the Dead

Connecting the unidentified dead with their relatives is no easy task -- especially when John Doe has 25 aliases

Leslie also visited his grandparents at least once during the late '60s. They didn't know quite what to make of his velvet pants and big hat. He scared them, especially since it was the first time he'd asked for money. Sometime after that, his grandparents received the same clothing in the mail from a prison in California. His family still doesn't know what crimes Leslie committed to land there.

Gursky still has the letter her brother wrote her eight years ago, the last time she ever heard from him. In it, Leslie stated that he had gotten away from the drugs that nearly destroyed his life. He was trying to start a rock 'n' roll art gallery on Polk Street called Starz, he informed his sister.

"Though you and I faced a little hell as children, we both got away from it in our own way. ... I've paid for my path many ways, as I'm sure you've paid for yours," Leslie wrote. "When I look back, I remember kites we flew in childhood summers, mud pies, being paid to pick potato bugs in mother's garden. I don't try to remember bad things about mother or our past."

"To understand my direction, you would really have to see through my eyes."
"The heart is a good thing and should be used fairly to judge the past."

Even the dead have a hard time finding a home in San Francisco.
Once upon a time, around the turn of the century, there was a cemetery at what is now Lincoln Park, near the Legion of Honor museum. It was also home to a potter's field, where those who died without means were laid to rest above the crashing waves of the Golden Gate.

That's before it became prime real estate.
In the 1970s, San Francisco gave up its potter's field and adopted a policy of cremating the unclaimed and unidentified dead, with a few exceptions. Honorably discharged veterans, for instance, are buried by the federal government at a national cemetery in Gustine, Calif., about 120 miles south of San Francisco. The Catholic Diocese of San Francisco buries indigent members of its flock at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.

The rest, those who remain unclaimed like so many sweaters in a lost-and-found box, move to Evergreen Mortuary in Oakland after 30 days; there, they are cremated and returned to the Medical Examiner's Office in small black boxes. Their lives are reduced to a name or a case number printed on a neat white label on the front of each box.

Leslie Ward, in death, may have found something he never had in life. For the last six months, he has been a member of a community -- the unclaimed dead, resting quietly on shelves in a dusty basement room in the Hall of Justice, a floor below the very busy and very contentious world of the living. Leslie's neighbors on that shelf are a varied bunch, the remains of random people who have one thing in common: They all died alone. And now, they are all waiting to go to their final destination.

Were it not for the bizarre chain of events that led to the form letter reconnecting Leslie Ward with his family, his ashes would have been sprinkled in the Pacific this December per department policy.

Instead, his remains have been sent to his sister.
"I've agonized over this," she explains. "I wonder if I really should bring him here. He seemed to love it there [in San Francisco]. It would be nice if there was something that showed that he lived.

"They were sent to me. Selfishly, for me," she says, her voice breaking into painful sobs. "Because I was never able to take care of him when he was alive, I want to take care of him now. I was his older sister, and I never could help him."

The remains of the other 180 people on the shelf in the Medical Examiner's Office stay there for a year, waiting for someone to claim them, too.

Once a month, Capt. Ron Ihle takes the ashes of those whose shelf life has expired out to sea.

Ihle sails The Orca, a 70-foot yacht owned by Evergreen, under the Golden Gate Bridge and off into the sea, about five miles off the coast of San Francisco.

On a clear day, you can see the Faralons and the Marin Headlands in the distance. On other days, only the shape of the land is visible through the heavy mist that descends on the boat.

The Orca is a gallant old lady that takes storms well. She's equipped with all the latest navigational gadgets, air conditioning, and a full kitchen. On other days, The Orca is used for dinner cruises and to take Sea Scouts out on their adventures.

Ihle slows the engine while Richard Cunningham, his first officer, begins moving the blue plastic crates that contain boxes of ashes toward the back of the boat. They are heavy and not moved without some struggle.

Both Ihle and Cunningham are dressed in their uniform black jackets, Ihle's with epaulets on the shoulders. The event is official without being ceremonious. Cunningham assesses the wind direction, leans over the side of the boat, and methodically pours the remains of his charges into the white, foamy wake.

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