Micah Asher Noah Choate died in Phoenix soon after being born, but his body was not claimed by anyone. Volunteers, including members of the Maricopa County female chain gang, came to his burial so he would not be alone. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Two women wearing black and white striped prison uniforms held an end of a white casket about the size of a shoe box, a tiny brown teddy bear tied to the top.
The women hugged it with their hands, then gently let it go.
It seemed to float, cradled by a green strap, as it descended into a freshly dug grave the size of a backhoe scoop and six feet deep.
Lindsey Myers from the non-profit ministry Andre House read aloud from a black notebook: “We gather together to commend our brother Micah to God, our Father, and to commit his body to the earth.”
Micah was a long time getting here.
He was born on Dec. 28, 2016, at a local hospital but did not live.
His parents abandoned him there, leaving his tiny body in the hospital morgue.
The only thing they left him was a name: Micah Asher Noah Choate.
A search for someone, anyone
It would be three months before an obituary would appear in The Arizona Republic on March 23. It read simply, “Choate, Micah Asher Noah, 0, of Phoenix, AZ passed away December 28, 2016. If you have any information regarding this person, please call Abel Funeral Services, 602-442-7747.”
I called the number, and talked with Brian McBride, the funeral director at Abel. Micah still lay in his refrigerated cooler. Almost three months after he had died, no one had come forward to claim him.
Plenty of people had tried to reach his family.
Hospital staff called the phone numbers they’d been given, only for no one to answer. Letters would have been sent to the address listed in their records.
But after getting no response, and with limited space in the morgue, the hospital called the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary’s Office, which operates the county’s indigent burial program.
People with little or no means are referred to the program from hospitals, nursing homes and the Medical Examiner’s Office.
The county contracts with two funeral homes — Abel and Legacy Funeral Home — paying $350 per death. The funeral homes take turns, one on call the first half of the month, the other on call the second half. McBride sent Jose Islas, his removal specialist, in a white van to pick up Micah’s body from the hospital morgue.
And another search began.
County staff members typically search the internet and scour public records, in the hopes of finding some assets belonging to the deceased or turning up previous phone numbers, addresses, employers or relatives.
They ask families for bank statements and military service records. (Veterans are buried at the National Memorial Cemetery at federal expense.)
At the funeral home, Heather Lundberg conducts her own searches, mostly on the internet, makes phone calls and sends registered letters. In Micah’s case, the phone numbers were outdated. The letters came back unopened.
In the case of an adult, a former roommate or employer can lead to family members. When the funeral home staff finds someone, they often are the first to break the news that a parent, sibling or even a child has died.
Sometimes, the funeral home finds family members who offer to take on the final arrangements themselves. More often, the families want nothing to do with the deceased.
The world has changed, Brian said, since he first started doing this work in 1973. “If you had family, they would take responsibility,” he said.
Sometimes, the deceased made it hard for people to keep caring about them. The man who robbed his mother. The mother who chose boyfriends or drugs over her children.
And the son whose parents lived in Paradise Valley.
They didn’t want anything to do with him. Brian sighed. He thought, “He was your kid. You should, especially if you can afford it. At some point, you must have loved him.”
Other times, he finds family members who are poor or even homeless themselves. They simply can’t do it.
For babies, the answer is always ‘yes’
For Micah, Brian placed the obituary in the newspaper in a last ditch-attempt to find someone who cared. The Republic runs the simple notices like Micah’s, just two sentences, one time and for free.
Brian hoped maybe to hear from Micah’s grandparents. Maybe they don’t know the child had been born. Or that he didn’t make it.
“This is a fetal death. They just kind of walked away and left him at the hospital,” Brian said. Imagine that, he said.
He doesn’t know much about the family’s circumstances.
Brian waited for two weeks after the obituary ran. No one called about Micah.
With no new leads, Brian submitted Micah’s name to the county, asking for permission to bury him.
The case would be reviewed, maybe a few more calls made.
The county burial program runs on about $200,000 a year. Of the 596 referrals to the program from July 1, 2015. to June 30, 2016, the county approved and paid for 421 burials and cremations. Cremations are done only at the request of family.
Five adults were buried without anyone discovering their names. Five were infants.
Of the ones denied, most often it is because a family member took responsibility or the deceased left assets — a savings account, a car — the family could use to cover burial costs themselves. Sometimes, families pay what they can afford, and the county covers the rest.
But when it comes to the babies, Brian said, the answer is always “yes”.
On a windswept patch of desert
Every Tuesday, the funeral homes receive a list of people approved for burial. On March 28, the list included the name, “Choate, Micah Asher Noah.”
Thursday is burial day.
By 8 a.m., the sun was warm, and there was a breeze blowing across the dusty 40 acres that make up the White Tanks Cemetery west of Litchfield Park, where the county buries its poor, the homeless and the abandoned.
Places likes like the White Tanks Cemetery used to be called potter’s fields, a Biblical term that referred to the grounds where clay was dug for pottery, thus rendering it unusable for agriculture. With trenches already dug, potter’s fields were ready-made graveyards for the poor.
Babies and old people are buried at White Tanks Cemetery. Mothers and fathers. Elderly nursing home residents. The homeless. Criminals, and victims of crime. Strangers just passing through.
But it’s not true that no one cares.
A chain gang, made up of female inmates in the striped outfits, stood in a group, the women linked by chains around their ankles, watched over by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies.
Another group, volunteers from the Andre House, a non-profit ministry in Phoenix, waited in dress clothes and with solemn expressions. People from the religious community volunteer in rotation to minister over the burials.
The man in charge, Adam Pinon from Maricopa County Facilities Management, manages the cemetery. This is a small part of his job, and his favorite.
Staff from both funeral homes, Abel and Legacy, stood by their respective white vans filled with pressed-wood caskets. There would be nine burials today.
Micah was the first.
Jose from Abel opened the back doors of his van and plucked the tiny brown teddy bear from where he had tucked it between two coffins.
He wrapped a green strap around the coffin and made sure it was secure. Adult-size coffins are lowered into the ground by a machine, but Micah’s coffin was too little and too light.
All Jose knew about Micah came from the paperwork on a clipboard: He died on Dec. 28, 2016, at 27 weeks gestation. The death was not a result of drug use or trauma.
And no one from his family was here to say goodbye.
So Jose carefully tied the teddy bear to the top of Micah’s coffin.
‘They see life is short’
Adam, the cemetery manager, said one, two or three babies are buried here every month. “It’s very difficult for everyone involved,” he said.
“Nobody wants to go alone. You want to be surrounded by love, whether it is the last minutes of your life or when you’re going into the ground,” Adam said.
For the people who don’t have anyone in life, he said, “I think what we do out here means something.”
The volunteers rotate so there is always someone here for burials. On some Thursdays, a retired veteran shows up, places a rose on every casket, and then quietly leaves.
The chain gang, sometimes male, sometimes female, never misses a Thursday. The inmates help maintain the cemetery, Adam said, even clearing out a nearby irrigation ditch that caused some flooding.
One of the trustees carried Micah’s coffin from the back of Jose’s van to the open grave. Many of the women were mothers, separated from their children by bars and sentences.
“I believe in my heart it is a healing process for them, and they’re healing from it. They see life is short,” Adam said.
“Maybe doing this will help them choose a different life path.”
Remembering those lost
Micah’s grave was in lot 11, row 1B — the “B” is for “babies” — space 9.
The first row of each section is reserved for the babies. Micah will get a brass marker like the others. They are like large thumb tacks pressed into the ground and etched with the babies’ names, if they were given one, date of birth and date of death, which is the same for almost every one.
Micah’s family could visit him here. The cemetery is open to the public on Wednesdays and Thursdays 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
People visit, leaving behind bouquets of plastic flowers. There is a framed picture of a woman and two small children on one grave. A foot-tall cherub statue stands next to another.
Officially, Adam is not supposed to allow anything left on the graves to remain there. But he looks the other way. It brightens the mostly brown expanse of land surrounded by a plain chain-link fence covered with beige canvas.
About 5,800 people have been buried here since 1994. The cemetery is about two-thirds full, but there is land to expand.
‘Let us comfort each other’
The two woman who held Micah’s coffin and hugged it with their hands before letting it go, back up into the two lines of inmates. They stood still, their feet a foot apart, hands behind their backs and heads bowed.
Tears dropped onto the cheeks of one woman. Others sniffed hard.
“The life of this child Micah, received from his parents, is not destroyed by death,” Myers read from the black notebook. “God has taken him into eternal life. As we commit Micah’s body to the earth, let us comfort each other with assurance of our faith.”
Together, they said the “Lord’s Prayer.”
The young men from the Andre House, one after another, each bent over, picked up a handful of dirt and let it fall into Micah’s grave.
“May Micah rest in peace.” Myers said.
Reach Bland at [email protected] or 602-444-8614.
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