Past an Ethiopian cafe, behind a row of 1980s townhouses, officials in Fairfax County are preparing to build a cemetery for those with nowhere else to go.
For years, the county has been searching for the right place to bury the poor. But in one of the nation’s richest counties, the paucity of affordable real estate and potential for neighborhood opposition limited the options. At one point, a county-owned site near a Lorton waste-treatment plant was considered. But officials decided it was too hard to reach, especially for visitors who might use public transportation.
The county caught a break when a developer scrapped plans in 2007 to build townhouses on a grassy lot less than a mile from Landmark Mall. Last summer, the county purchased the land, and the cemetery, put together with a half-million-dollar budget, is to open this year.
It will have space for 800 grave sites as well as niches for ashes, giving the county 50 years worth of space to bury those who have no one else to pay for such services.
“You’re not legally responsible for burying your parents or your siblings or your uncles or aunts,” said Barbara Antley, a Fairfax official working on the cemetery. “People have a moral responsibility, but sometimes families simply can’t afford it.”
Each year, hundreds of bodies go unclaimed across the Washington region. It’s a place that brims with newcomers and draws strivers from around the country and the world. Sometimes, officials can’t track down relatives, or if they do, families sometimes balk, leaving the dead in government hands. In August, one of them was Zuzanna Kikun of Reston, who had been born in Belarus in 1924, at the dawn of Stalin’s reign. In October, it was Baby Girl Kaur, who lived for a day and was left at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Where people end up for good depends in many ways on where they die.
In the District, a contractor for the medical examiner sends cremated remains to a private cemetery in Fairfax. Deceased veterans are sent to the national cemeteries at Quantico and Arlington and to the Cheltenham State Veterans Cemetery, south of Upper Marlboro. Last year, 103 bodies were sent out for “public disposition,” according to District officials.
In Prince William, the Woodbine church in Manassas allows the county’s cremains to be buried on the church grounds, according to Sheriff’s Capt. Heath Stearns.
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties fall under Maryland’s more utilitarian system. The state’s unclaimed bodies are shipped to Baltimore, where the state makes them available to medical workers who are practicing treatment techniques.
The bodies eventually are cremated and the ashes included in a Carroll County ceremony each June, along with the remains of those who elected to donate their bodies for research.
“Why should I just go in the ground and rot when I can help someone else?” said Ronald Wade, director of the state’s Anatomy Board. “It’s like that country song: ‘It’s not what you have when you’re here. It’s what you leave when you go.’ ”
In Virginia, sheriff’s offices have long had the job of managing unclaimed bodies. But an opinion last month from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) threatens to upend that system. Cuccinelli said that Virginia law only requires sheriffs to act in the limited number of cases in which a death investigation has been conducted. That has left unclear who is responsible for handling the state’s unclaimed bodies, and officials said that the General Assembly will have to clarify.
In Fairfax, the job has long been left up to the Department of Family Services. For decades, the county buried unclaimed bodies in its Jermantown cemetery in the city of Fairfax. But the plots ran out in the 1990s.
Once Jermantown was full, the county found space at private cemeteries in and out of Fairfax, including Stonewall Memory Gardens in Manassas.
“That worked well, except that we were having people buried in various cemeteries around the area,” according to Antley, a senior official in Family Services. So officials put the work out to bid and contracted with National Memorial Park to handle the county’s burials and cremations.
The vast cemetery west of Falls Church has distinct neighborhoods — a Jewish section, a Muslim section, a Chinese section and even a place for pets. The southwestern corner, near a bus stop at Lee Highway and Hollywood Road, is where many of Fairfax’s destitute have been buried. The county pays $1,780 for a casket and burial, and $1,590 for the grave, Antley said.
Fairfax officials were still looking for a centralized and permanent county resting place, and the scuttled townhouse development gave them an opening. The one-acre property at 6271 Lincolnia Rd. already included the small St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery along one side. Because there were already 74 grave markers nearby, residents were less likely to oppose the county site.
“I’d rather that than a residence, oh, yes, any day of the week,” said Pat Curry, 71, an Army veteran and retired National Science Foundation administrator who settled here in 1985. The county’s population has soared by more than 400,000 residents since then, to more than 1.1 million. “You don’t know who you’re going to get, how many kids they’re going to have,” Curry said.
As it stands, a couple of cats share the suburban refuge behind her house with opossums and foxes and deer. There’s a picnic table and a hideout in the trees where people drink and smoke.
Curry prefers the predictability — and quiet — of the dead.
“They’re not going to get up and run around,” she said.
There will be a new gravel parking lot to accommodate the public at the cemetery. But “visitation is expected to be minimal,” according to county planning documents.