Some of the District’s unclaimed remains are in mass, unmarked graves at Coleman Cemetery in Alexandria, placed there by contract-holder W.H. Bacon Funeral Services. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Coleman Cemetery is a sloping spit of land wedged against a cluster of million-dollar mansions in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. Three acres wide, it’s the sort of graveyard people glance at as they whiz past, then likely never think of again. But this place bears a distinction: Hundreds of Washington’s poorest residents are buried here. And you’d never know it.

On a recent Monday, a man who tends to this cemetery sidestepped its headstones. He arrived at a plot of earth smaller than a racquetball court. Three trash cans and a shed overlooked a mass of tangled grass.

“These are where the graves are from D.C.,” said Ron Reaves, 73, his eyes cast down at the sodden earth. “If you walk through here, you’ll step in places like, ‘Oh, look, this is a grave. And this is a grave.’ People are buried all around here. People who don’t have enough money.”

This is the story of what happens to the District’s unclaimed dead — those who die so alone, so destitute that no one comes forward to pay for a funeral, leaving the job to the government. No tombstones bear their names. Their identities are not publicized. Invisible in life, they are also invisible in death.

It isn’t supposed to be this way.

Coleman Cemetery caretaker Ronald Reaves, 73, of Stafford, Va., stands near the spot where he says the cremains of unclaimed bodies from the District are buried. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

In 2007, the city signed a contract with W.H. Bacon Funeral Services to dispose of the city’s unclaimed remains. One of W.H. Bacon’s duties, according to an annually renewed contract obtained by The Washington Post, is to erect “a permanent marker at the burial site or mausoleum bearing the decedent’s name and the . . . case number.”

It’s the same situation at the plot for unclaimed remains at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Baltimore, where W.H. Bacon started laying the remains of District residents last year, as the Web site Vice first reported. No markers. No tombstones.

District officials say they are investigating whether W.H. Bacon has complied with its contract. “We would like to wait until our whole investigation has completed” before commenting more, said Beverly Fields, spokeswoman for the District’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the agency tasked with disposing of unclaimed remains.

The agency declined to divulge the identities attached to the remains that W.H. Bacon has buried, citing “relevant District laws and regulations.” But Fields said the agency makes every effort to contact relatives and directs inquiring families to W.H. Bacon Funeral Home.

Wendell Bacon, a funeral home manager, defended the parlor’s work. “The thing you should be asking is why people don’t claim their loved ones,” he said. “Some people have the money. That’s the story.”

He added: “I do the [contract] to the T.”

Anonymity crosses eras

In the District, there’s nothing new about leaving the poor in unmarked graves. Those who filled the city’s first known potter’s field, established in 1806 at what is today near the intersection of Seventh and M streets NW, lived at a place called the Old Poorhouse.

W.H. Bacon Funeral Home, on 14th Street in Columbia Heights, handles the District’s unclaimed. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Others — the disease-ravaged, the unwanted — vanished into unmarked, mass graves across the city.

That the anonymity of that time endures in this age of fast information came as a surprise to Anne Brockett, a cemetery historian for the District’s Historic Preservation Office.

“It’s not like back in the day, when you weren’t sure who they were,” she said. The poor then didn’t often carry identifying documentation, but today “is a different era when information is much more readily available and should end up on a tombstone.”

It does elsewhere. For example, Fairfax County lays every unclaimed body into its own grave underneath an individual tombstone chiseled with the person’s name and dates of birth and death.

Unlike the District, many other jurisdictions — including Detroit’s Wayne County, Seattle’s King County and Los Angeles County — release the names of the unclaimed to the public.

After attempting to contact relatives and waiting three days for them to come forward, Maryland donates its unclaimed remains to medical research, declaring on a graveyard monument its “deep appreciation for those who gave unselfishly of themselves to advance medical education.”

“Maryland has always had a system,” said Ronn Wade, an official with the state Anatomy Board, which handles unclaimed remains.

Wade said the number of unclaimed bodies in the state has risen steadily in recent decades. In 1973, the state buried 60 unclaimed bodies — but last year, it handled 729. This surge, Wade said, isn’t just about population growth or poverty. Rather, life spans have lengthened and families have grown smaller, more spread out and less close-knit.

“If you live to 93 and you’ve outlived all of your siblings and your relatives, you’re going to be coming to me,” he said. “And that’s just how it is.”

District officials also hesitate to connect the District’s unprecedented swell in homelessness with a recent increase in unclaimed bodies. Between 2008 and 2014, the District buried
711 people, with the annual number rising from 90 to 125, or about 40 percent, according to city data. That number also included
50 veterans.

During that time, the city spent $390,000 for handling the remains from beginning to end, including cremations and burials, or about $548 per body. The cost of cremation alone for the public generally starts at about $1,000 per body.

The city usually finds relatives, but in around 90 percent of cases, families and friends simply decline to claim their dead, said Mikelle DeVillier, general counsel of the district’s medical examiner. The agency “makes every effort to reunify decedents with their loved ones,” she said.

But even if the relatives fail to claim them, Reaves said the city owes them the dignity of marking their graves. As human beings, he said, they deserve no less.

“This is a crisis in our country,” Reaves said. He blamed the District government for its role. “They put out a bid for whoever wants to do it, then whoever does is trying to make the most money, so they’re trying to find the cheapest way to do it.”

‘Most likely, it’s the homeless’

W.H. Bacon Funeral Home inhabits a weather-battered building perched along 14th Street in Columbia Heights. Past its creaky door and up its carpeted stairs sits a muscular man named Kevin Mcelhaney. He has worked at W.H. Bacon for more than a year and sometimes handles the city’s unclaimed.

“Most likely, it’s the homeless,” he said. “One has nowhere to stay, and they’re not eating properly, getting the rest that they need. . . . I do the cleaning. It’s okay. I’ve been doing it for 32 years. It takes a good person, a strong person to do this kind of work. It was meant for me to do.”

W.H. Bacon, which opened in 1954 and has long serviced the poor of Columbia Heights, started disposing of the city’s unclaimed under contract in 2007. Although the contract requires W.H. Bacon to transport and cremate unclaimed bodies, and erect a permanent marker bearing their names, the parlor can choose the crematory and the cemetery — and what happens when the remains get there.

The bodies first stay at the city morgue for at least 30 days — sometimes longer — before W.H. Bacon arrives. Then Mcelhaney said he carts the bodies 15 miles north to a place called Chesapeake Pet Crematory, which promotes its services on its Web site. “Today most pet owners choose cremation,” says the site, which doesn’t mention anything about humans. “If you like, we at Chesapeake Pet Crematory can help you plan an event that celebrates the life of your pet.”

One crematory employee, who declined to give his name and disclose how much the business charges Bacon because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said its Web site is merely an “advertisement.”

The employee added: “We mostly cremate humans. We just do a little pet cremation here and there for the public.”

Once cremated, the unclaimed remains funnel into individual containers that bear that person’s name. Until last year, W.H. Bacon brought the cremains to Coleman Cemetery, where Reaves would wait. Reaves said the funeral home unloaded a single casket, which would carry a surprising amount of cremains — about 50. He’d charge $1,000 for a grave to put the casket in, then watch as it was lowered into the ground.

On a recent afternoon, Reaves scowled as he padded though Coleman Cemetery toward his Jeep. His family is also buried at this cemetery, he said. He feels a certain fealty to its dead. So he has decided to put up a new tombstone.

“I’m going to spend about $400 to $800 of my own money,” he said. “A basic little headstone that said, ‘These were unclaimed bodies of the District of Columbia.’ ”

Then at least, he said, they won’t be invisible.