Inmates and volunteers bury the poor, unclaimed and unidentified in Litchfield Park

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Almost 6,000 people are buried at White Tanks Cemetery, many of them homeless, unidentified, or without families to claim the body or pay for the funeral. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Almost 6,000 people are buried at White Tanks Cemetery, many of them homeless, unidentified, or without families to claim the body or pay for the funeral. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Inmates help move the casket from the van to the ground. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Inmates help move the casket from the van to the ground. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The graves are only identified by a small, metal disk that mark each individual’s resting place. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The graves are only identified by a small, metal disk that mark each individual’s resting place. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Nearly 6,000 people have been buried at the Litchfield Park cemetery since its opening in 1994. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Nearly 6,000 people have been buried at the Litchfield Park cemetery since its opening in 1994. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
LITCHFIELD PARK, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

In the corner of a dirt cemetery in Litchfield Park, nine people are laid to rest.

They are only surrounded by inmates and strangers.

“There’s no family here,” said Louisa Milstead, a volunteer that has attended the Thursday burials for about 11 years. “It’s just us. And that’s the most disturbing part of it all. It’s just us, the chain gang, and us.”

Almost 6,000 people are buried at White Tanks Cemetery, many of them homeless, unidentified, or without families to claim the body or pay for the funeral.

Sometimes, the caskets brought in for the burials are too small for comfort.

“The infant last week, that, really, was hard,” Lea Wolf said.

Wolf, a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office chain gang member, has attended a few Thursday burials. She carries the caskets from the van and helps her fellow inmates lower them into the ground.

“The baby’s casket was little, and we lower it down with a string,” she said. “It’s unbelievable that nobody was there to pray over it or mourn the short life that have [sic] been lived. That was really horrible.”

If the baby doesn’t have a name, Milstead asks the inmates to come up with one for the little boy or girl.

“They take it very personally,” Milstead said. “They take it home with them. I always ask them to take care of their own children and think of the babies, and it’s moving.”

Throughout her time volunteering, Milstead has seen an impact on chain gang members. She asks them to read prayers and join the other volunteers in a song.

One young man once showed up with a bloody mouth after his tooth was pulled. Milstead asked why he decided to show up.

“He said, 'I didn’t think anybody would read for you,'” she said.

“Them not having any family or friends, it’s a good feeling to be here to assist with the burials,” said Julia Zamora, an inmate on the chain gang. “I believe that nobody should be without somebody.”

“Sometimes, people might choose that type of path that leads them that way, but it’s an eye-opener to not be going that direction,” she said.

Funeral homes attempt to find families of the deceased. If they don’t have luck, they will refer the case to the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary.

“We will have burial coordinators who will scour the internet, scour public records and they will try to find people who is [sic] related to this person,” said Erika Flores, senior communications officer for Maricopa County, “just try to find a connection so that way we can find the family members.”

After obituaries are published and other alternatives are exhausted, the paperwork starts to see if they can be buried at White Tanks Cemetery.

If the application is approved, the county pays up to $350 for a standard burial at White Tanks Cemetery.

“It’s just important for us to be able to give that proper burial,” Flores said. “No matter if the person is homeless or just can’t afford the burial.”

Nearly 6,000 people have been buried at the Litchfield Park cemetery since its opening in 1994.

The graves are only identified by a small, metal disk that mark each individual’s resting place.

“You never know what's going to happen, how the day's going to go and where it can take us,” Stephanie Sommers Stout said, a 10-year volunteer. “Just knowing that, we can keep focusing on gratitude.”

“It’s not pretty out here. It’s dirty, it’s dusty, it’s hot in the summertime and you freeze to death in the wintertime,” Milstead said, standing in the middle of the dirt cemetery.

“This has been a very rough week, and I couldn’t wait to get out here,” she said. “I worry about my little things, and just compared to this, it’s nothing.”

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