The Dead Among Us

One week of living and dying in Miami-Dade.

Cause of death: intra-oral gunshot wound


A PAUPER'S GRAVE

Dried red and yellow leaves rustle on the tree-lined path that rings the perimeter of a county park on Galloway Road in Southwest Miami-Dade. Sandwiched between a county telecommunications building and the East Kendall Fire Station, the park is virtually empty this past March 30, except for a couple of women walking the gravel trail. It looks like an average park — except for the rows of bricks in the ground. Each of the stones is etched with a number assigned to the unknown dead buried here. The gravel pathway leads to the center of the park, where a granite obelisk reads, "Galloway Cemetery," one of two public spots in Miami-Dade where unknown people and the poor are laid to rest.

The other county cemetery is located next to Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, at SW 79th Street and 113th Avenue. According to Elise Bobbitt, the cemeteries have existed since the 1920s. Bobbitt would know, because for the past 21 years, she has worked as coordinator of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Public Interment Program, which provides funeral services for unclaimed bodies and for indigent families that cannot afford to pay for a funeral.

About one-third of the 850 cases Bobbitt handled last year were unclaimed bodies, while two-thirds were for poor families cremating a relative. This year, Bobbitt has already buried or cremated 187 bodies. The county, which sets aside $250,000 a year for the public interment program, uses Allen and Shaw Cremations in Opa-locka to cremate the deceased. According to Bobbitt, there is no specific profile of an unclaimed or indigent dead person. "Some either died in a nursing home or a hospital or at home," she says. "Some people are elderly who outlived their family members. Others are single individuals with little or no next-of-kin data."

Bobbitt notes she researches hospital and nursing home records, veterans affairs records, and social security numbers; combs the Internet; and contacts friends and former employers to find an unclaimed deceased person's relatives. It's a job that requires patience, understanding, and empathy. "I enjoy helping others," she says. "When people call our office, they are experiencing a very difficult time. It is comforting for them to know that I don't treat their loved one as just another public interment case."


THE CARETAKERS

A sobbing Cuban-American woman walks from the office of the Bernardo Garcia Funeral Home at 865 W. 49th St. in Hialeah. Funeral director Raymond Scott — a tall man with curly black hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, a blue print tie, crisp white shirt, and dark slacks — puts his arm around her and accompanies the woman to her car. It's the morning of April 1, and Scott's day is just beginning. The lady he was escorting had a son who was lost at sea for nine months. "They found him last week," Scott explains.

For Scott, the inspiration to become a funeral director took root while he was living in New York City in 2006. At the time, Scott, whose parents are of Dominican and Spanish descent, was a scientist doing pharmaceutical research for Pfizer. "My grandmother had died," he recollects. "She was from the old country and wanted a viewing in our house. The funeral director I chose treated me and my family with the greatest compassion. I got to see the entire process in my house, even when he embalmed her."

Shortly thereafter, Pfizer offered him and other employees with more than 15 years on the job a buyout. "I had the opportunity to do something else with my life, so I took an aptitude test," Scott says, chuckling. "Three things came up: nurse, pharmacist, and funeral director."

Scott and his family moved to Miami in 2007, and he enrolled in Miami Dade College's funeral service and mortuary science associate's degree program. Although the program usually takes two years to complete, Scott was able to finish in one year because he already had a degree. While attending school, he landed an internship with Bernardo Garcia. "I've been here ever since," he says. "This was the place I wanted to work for." Scott adds that he is still afraid of death even though he sees the harsh reality of it on a daily basis. "No one wants to die," he says. "And every day, I am reminded that there is an end to life."

Among the people the New York City native met in school was Jay Boutwell, who has been a funeral director for the past 14 years. Boutwell, a bald man with a white beard and deep-set blue eyes, also graduated from MDC's funeral service program. "This is something that I was truly meant to do in life," Boutwell says. "It was one of those duck-to-water situations." Boutwell works alongside Scott at Bernardo Garcia helping relatives plan funeral arrangements for loved ones.

When Boutwell was 22 years old, he lost his first wife to leukemia, he says. "The people at the funeral home took such good care of me that if I could give back just a little of what they gave me," he says, "then I would be doing something meaningful." Ten years later, after the retail company he worked for went out of business, Boutwell enrolled in funeral director school and got his degree. He has worked for various funeral homes in South Florida and has seen all manner of deaths.

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