Forest Lawn officials like to talk about a person actually dying three times.
The first is when the person is declared physically dead. The second is the burial. And the final death occurs the last time someone remembers or mentions the person’s name.
About 30 people with developmental disabilities who attend a People Inc. program Tuesday made sure that 296 people buried in Forest Lawn more than a century ago – many of them orphaned, destitute or homeless – were remembered again this holiday season.
The 30 young adults placed wreaths, along with name tags bearing a brief holiday message, on the graves of these no-longer-forgotten people.
“We just put that final death off again for these 296 people,” said Forest Lawn President Joseph P. Dispenza, referring to the three-death idea conceived by a cemetery trustee. “That’s our job. There’s no such thing as the unremembered dead.”
It’s all part of a project that took shape early this fall, when the young adults in the People Inc. day program began working on the three lots in the cemetery’s DD section. Those graves are the final resting place for residents from the former Church Charity Foundation (which housed the aged and destitute), the Buffalo Orphan Asylum, and the Home of the Friendless (which sheltered young girls and women).
Most of the people buried in that section died between 1870 and 1970.
The young adults started their project by edging the graves, sweeping off grave markers and raking leaves. Then, based on information from Forest Lawn officials, they began making and laminating the wreath tags that state, “In Memory of (name) From Your Friends at People Inc.”
“We’re doing something really, really good for the community, for people who were abandoned,” said Lindsey Rosenberg, senior program manager for the People Inc. group. “It’s great for the [clients] to build their skills, but it’s also something deep and meaningful.”
The 30 young adults seemed to enjoy placing the wreaths.
“It’s a nice thing to do,” said Dan Yager, 29, dressed in a Buffalo Sabres sweatshirt. “They were born in the 1800s. It’s history.”
“We’re doing this to help give them a nice wreath for Christmas,” added Cahlie Dunning, 26.
Or, as Dispenza put it, “It’s like a holiday card to a previous century.”
The marked graves paid tribute to young and old, including Alice Munich, who died in 1883 at about age 11, and centenarian Sibyl C. Bixby, who lived from 1828 to 1928.
For now, neither Forest Lawn officials nor the People Inc. grave-tenders know much about the people buried in these lots, other than their names, birth dates and death dates.
The group’s next project, officials say, is filling in the dashes between the birth and death dates.
It was hard to watch these young people without wondering what different lives they would have led if they had been born 150 years ago, when American society pretty much wrote off people with disabilities.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, they would have been in institutions that usually were in the middle of nowhere, separated from society,” said Kevin Horrigan, public affairs director for People Inc.
“In a lot of cases, when they died, they were buried without proper markers or proper recognition.”
Tuesday’s hourlong laying of the wreaths was all about two groups of individuals: the people in the graves and the People Inc. clients making sure that the dead are not forgotten.
In a refreshing change, a day earlier, Forest Lawn officials decided to forgo the speeches or news conferences that usually precede such an event.
“It’s not about us,” Dispenza said, before referring to the young people. “Let them come out and do their thing.”