Recognizing the humanity of Juárez’s unclaimed dead
CIUDAD JUAREZ – Dust swirls as the particle-board coffin with numbers written on top slides into the grave, one of many in a long row. There are no mourners standing around this grave. No songs are sung, no prayers are said, no tears are cried.
Before the dust clears, the four men who dropped this coffin in a hole are walking away without glancing back, wiping away sweat, eyes ahead on the next coffin waiting to be carried into place.
If you drive down the dirt road that leads to San Rafael Cemetery in Ciudad Juárez, if you wave off the vendors who approach to sell flowers and votive candles, if you go through the sagging gates and pass fields of headstones, you will come to a part of cemetery marked with a sign that reads: “Fosa Común.” “Common grave” is the literal translation.
This area of the cemetery is reserved for unclaimed bodies. In some cases, the bodies are unclaimed because they have not been identified. In others, even though authorities are able to make a positive identification, no one comes forward to claim the body and give the deceased a private or personal burial. After taking DNA samples, the state eventually buries these unclaimed bodies in this large plot.
Unlike other areas of the cemetery, where the eye is interrupted by numerous crosses, headstones, pillars, and monuments, here in the Fosa Común you can look across a landscape that is largely unobstructed.
If you walk past the “Authorized Access Only” signs that surround the Fosa Común, you will see a combination of the newer marker stakes, painted white with black figures, the older metal stakes with their stamped identifying codes rusting into oblivion, and only the occasional wooden cross or concrete headstone that bears a name.
There are fresher graves, the dirt still mounded over them, and there are the older sections, where the ground has flattened itself again and the graves are overgrown with weeds and orange cempasuchil flowers, as if Nature herself will honor these forgotten ones on the Day of the Dead.
Today, 50 coffins arrive in a trailer truck that backs along a row of graves, freshly dug and waiting to receive their dead. Fifty rectangular holes, lined up end to end.
The coffins are lowered from the truck onto small rolling carts. A state employee checks the identifying codes on each coffin against her clipboard, and then writes the date in a red Sharpie. Four men sling two long straps under each coffin and then over their shoulders. With the coffin balanced on these straps, they make their way to the grave and maneuver it into place. It slides and falls with a thud. They pull the straps out from under it and they walk away.
The coffins are thin and cheaply constructed, and the truck is not refrigerated. There is a smell of rot in the breeze that drifts past the truck, and reddish-brown drips appear along the surface of the particle-board caskets. These bodies – or in some cases, handfuls of bones – have spent months in the state’s morgue. While other bodies come and go as family members step forward to claim the remains of their loved ones, these 50 remained. They are the unknown and the forgotten.
The bodies in the Fosa Común arrived in many ways. Some of them are homeless, indigents, addicts, or elderly who died alone. Some are migrants who died at the border, with no information about their identity or how to contact their families. Some of them are mere bones, perhaps belonging to one of the many families that are looking for their missing daughters. Some of them are the young men who came from other states to fight in the drug war on the border. Some of them are local Juárez boys, whose families know that they were murdered, but are too afraid of being identified if they come forward to claim the bodies.
Nevertheless, a few of the bodies buried here will eventually be claimed. Family members come to the state and provide DNA samples, and these are matched to the files kept on the unclaimed bodies. Then, authorities consult the burial records and find the individual plot, marked with a stake announcing the case number. Sometimes, the family will pay to have the body exhumed and then relocated to another resting place. But sometimes, the cost of exhumation and reburial is out of reach and they simply erect a small cross or headstone naming the dead and reclaiming that small bit of their memory.
But mostly, the air that hangs over the Fosa Común is heavy with a kind of melancholy and tragedy. How utterly alone did a person live, if there is no one there to look for him when he dies? How utterly alone did a person die, if there is no one to say, “She belongs to us” when her body is found? Fifty bodies drop into graves that will be marked with a number painted on a stake.
It seems like an absolute failure of family, friendship, and social ties that they would be left alone after death. It seems like an insult to their memory and to their very humanity.
And yet, as the unceremonious burial concludes and the gates of San Rafael fade away in the dust behind me, I realize that precisely the opposite is true. The Fosa Común is, indeed, a place of sadness and loneliness and tragedy. But it is also a place of humanity and hope. Humanity and hope because these bodies have not been abandoned somewhere to rot away. They have not been incinerated or dumped, one atop another, in a mass grave. They are buried in individual caskets and graves. The graves are marked – with numbers and codes, but they are marked – in the hope that one day someone who knows their name will appear.
Their humanity is recognized and their belonging to a social family is affirmed in the care that is taken to give these unidentified bodies a place to rest, and a chance at being brought home again.
NOTE: The Fiscalía General de Estado (FGE, Chihuahua State Attorney’s Office), in coordination with the Servicio Médico Forense (Medical Forensics Service), buried the unclaimed remains of 50 people on Saturday, May 23, in San Rafael Cemetery near Ciudad Juárez. Most of these remains are of individuals who died in 2019. Causes of death included violence, vehicular accidents, drowning, suicide, overdose, and natural causes. The FGE expects to bury an additional 100 remains in the next few weeks. All of the remains have had extensive testing done prior to burial and will have a record containing identifying information and place of burial registered with the state in the event that any relatives make a claim in the future.
Cover photo: An unclaimed body is lowered into a grave at San Rafael Cemetery. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)