The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A dignified resting place awaits the poor and unfamous in a famous graveyard

Jeff Raymond of Potomac Memorials works on a headstone at the Congressional Cemetery site where the District will inter the cremated remains of dozens of residents annually who cannot afford a final resting place. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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In life, Jock K. Adams and Paul Coates Jr. were strangers.

In death, they will be together in a vault at Congressional Cemetery.

Their cremated remains were interred last week along with those of dozens of others, joined in a new resting place created by the District’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at the historic 35-acre site on Capitol Hill.

They are the moved and shaken amid movers and shakers: the deceased whose family or loved ones were unable on their own to provide them with a final resting place.

For the first time, the city on Saturday held a memorial service for those who loved them, and it was in a spot in the city, not distant.

The District’s public disposition program provides cremations and interments of the indigent and unclaimed bodies. But in recent years, those remains have been buried in the suburbs of Baltimore or in Arlington County because that is where the city vendors who provided services had spaces.

The Bowser administration has spent the past few years devising a policy change that made it possible for the city to buy three adjacent plots at the renowned Southeast Washington graveyard that holds John Philip Sousa and J. Edgar Hoover, along with former District mayor Marion Barry.

Roger Mitchell, the city’s medical examiner, said the aim of acquiring the plots is to give dignity in death to individuals who died utterly alone or to those beloved by survivors too financially strapped to provide a funeral but who longed for a place in Washington where they could grieve and have graveside visitations.

“We feel that it is important that the people who lived and loved and had loved ones in the District should be laid to rest in the city,” Mitchell said.

The public disposition service involves remains that have been unclaimed for 30 days after the medical examiner’s office receives them.

Those who turn to it are often families or friends who are not in a financial position to take possession of the bodies and choose to relinquish control of the remains during discussions with staff from the office. In other cases, the remains are publicly disposed of after officials were unable to identify the deceased or relatives.

Through the city’s program, remains will be cremated for $485 for adults and older juveniles and $320 for children up to age 8, officials said.

The city expects to be able to use the three newly purchased vaults at Congressional over the next decade or so, and each should hold several hundred remains, Mitchell said.

The lives of those buried and joined in the vaults will be remembered each year at a memorial service hosted by the medical examiner’s office and that will see the ashes delivered into the vault, starting with the service on Saturday for 55 families.

“In any grief process, closure is extremely important,” and the lack of “a funeral service or a memorial service doesn’t provide a sense of closure,” Mitchell said. “Having a ceremony is important to show the love we have for our city.”

When 69-year-old Paul Coates Jr. died at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in November, his family members had no idea how they could afford to honor his wishes by having him cremated.

He had been living in the Columbia Heights apartment of his 90-year-old mother, Mamie Coates. She is on a fixed income, as are her two daughters, Geraldine Coates-Robinson and Saundra Coates-Ware.

Born and raised near 15th and Swann streets NW, Coates had been known as the “genius of the family” during grade school. But by his teenage years, his life had veered toward trouble in the streets as he left behind classes at Cardozo High School and later found himself graduating from high school behind prison walls at Lorton, his family said. A troubled life led to years of incarceration, including a long stint for armed bank robbery, according to his family.

When he was released in 2001, he made a promise to himself and to them that he wouldn’t die in prison, and he kept his word. After his release, he found work driving delivery trucks for Safeway and for an ice company.

He never returned to jail, but he also never found a way to pay for an insurance policy to cover his funeral costs, although he was clear and certain about just how he wanted his body handled when he died, his sister recalled.

“I don’t care what y’all do, I want to be burnt up,” he said, according to Coates-Robinson, who added, “He’s cremated, he got his wish, and he’s in heaven with his family, his dad, and his brother, grandma and cousins.”

The wish was realized through the city program that cremated Coates, but that also now gives his family a gravesite to visit.

“I really appreciate what they are doing for us; we really did try to get the money together” but couldn’t, Coates-Robinson said.

For Coates’s mother, sisters and their children, having him resting in a place near them gives them all an unexpected sense of peace.

“It means so much; he’s right here at home where he was born and where he passed,” Coates-Robinson said. “He’s home. It means a hell of a lot to us.”

The Adams family is not local — they are from Buffalo — but for the past two decades, Jock Adams had been in the District, battling drug addiction and bouncing in and out of jail, his older brother Delray Adams recalls.

On Oct. 21, Jock Adams was found dead of what police told his brother was a fentanyl overdose in a residence in the unit block of O Street NW. Adams, 55, said detectives told him that Jock Adams had gotten high at a woman’s home the night before and couldn’t be awakened the next morning.

Investigators found heroin, cocaine and fentanyl in Jock Adams’s system at the time of death, his brother said about what killed the man.

Years before his death, Jock Adams had drifted from his family, without a sustained relationship with his two sisters, and then for many years had no contact with family, until Delray Adams moved to Waldorf a few years ago, as Adams recounted.

By then, Jock Adams was telling his brother of the battles he had to stay sober after completing a then-recent prison term for what Jock Adams said was a drug offense. He was homeless and often stayed at the Central Union Mission shelter downtown, where Delray Adams said he and his wife tried to visit once a week.

But in the weeks before his death, Jock Adams fell out of contact almost entirely, and when he did call, he suddenly needed cash, his brother said.

“We thought he was getting better. But then the calls came for money,” Adams said. “I guess he just slipped into the same space with the same crowd. That’s pretty much what I know.”

Then finally came the time when Adams didn’t hear from his younger brother at all.

After his brother was found dead, it took authorities weeks to locate a relative, and for Delray Adams then to find out how Jock Adams had died.

Those questions answered, his family was left to confront how to provide a funeral for Jock Adams.

The surviving Adams could not afford it — he had a fledgling trucking business as his sole source of income.

The District’s public disposition program was the only option to ensure that his brother found a decent ending.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I just don’t know,” Adams said. “Just in a few words, it’s tremendous. It means a lot to me and my family.”

Jock Adams will rest now beneath a grassy spot in the shadow of the D.C. Jail property, at the bottom of a gentle slope on the eastern edge of Congressional Cemetery.

A group of veterans’ graves are southeast of the city’s grave marker, and the Methodist Memorial is due east.

Above the vault for those cremated by the city is a gray headstone bearing the medical examiner’s office seal and an elegant and simple chiseled epitaph.

“Honoring our loved ones,” it reads. “May you rest in peace.”