Key West and county officials today will hold the annual memorial service for the island chain's homeless who died in 2012, laying to rest 51 souls without survivors who could afford private funerals.
This year's death toll includes two infants whose lives ended immediately after birth, and the oldest is an 86-year-old woman who died Dec. 15, said the Rev. Steve Braddock, who will lead the 3 p.m. service at Key West Cemetery.
Not all were homeless, but the service this year honors the full list of the dead whose bodies were released into the custody of Monroe County.
"The people we are including are either homeless or indigent, without the means for a private burial," said Braddock. "Many of them simply didn't have anyone to provide that for them. I believe that every life is worthy of dignity and respect and should be remembered as having been part of our shared humanity."
The county's Social Services division provides cremation and burial for the indigent, those who die alone on the streets or whose families cannot afford the task.
For $900 per body, the county places a marker on each life while providing vault space for the remains. Since 2000, the nonprofit headed by Braddock, Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, has owned a vault designated for the homeless.
"It is sad, but in a way they're not forgotten, because there is always a record of them," said Sheryl Graham, the county's director of Social Services. "The sexton at the cemetery has a record of every single individual in our vault, or Father Braddock's vault."
Since 2006, this job of searching for next of kin and confirming that a person hasn't the money to pay for services has fallen to Graham.
The county legally has to handle its unclaimed dead, but Graham personally investigates each person as a case to ensure that taxpayers' money is going to the truly indigent or alone.
Referrals are made by local funeral homes, who by proximity are called when authorities find a dead body who has no immediate next of kin.
"It's a very dignified and kind process," said Graham.
"It's still very respectful. If the family member signs documentation saying they don't have the money to pay for it, yet they want the person's remains, we will send their remains to them."
Earlier this year Graham returned the remains of a homeless man who died in Key West a decade ago to his estranged son.
"We went in and got him," said Graham, of the dead man's remains that like the others are sealed in a white shoe-box sized container and placed in a vault.
"That's why I like to keep it real organized."
The county owns several hundred vaults in Key West Cemetery, where it buried 71 people's remains last year. Each vault is the size of a regular casket and can hold at least 150 boxes.
The Key West ceremony is part of the National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day event, purposely held on the longest night of the year as a reminder that during the holiday season there are those without basic comforts.
Mayor Craig Cates and City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley signed the proclamation that deems today a day to remember the homeless who died.
"In this season of peace and good will, the citizens of Key West are encouraged to commit themselves to promoting compassion and concern for all members of our One Human Family, especially those who are poor and homeless," the proclamation states.
The 51 people who died as "paupers," the county's word for the indigent, aren't the only ones who died poor or alone in the Florida Keys, said Graham, just the ones the county pays to cremate and bury.
Some were completely alone or disowned by their families long ago.
"And we become their family," Graham said.
Other Keys events today
• In Marathon, St. Columba Episcopal Church will hold a memorial service at 5 p.m., followed by a dinner. The church is at 451 52nd St. Call 305-743-6412 for details.
• In Tavernier, Community Health Ministries in the Upper Keys is coordinating a memorial service at noon in Settlers Park. Call 305-852-1612 for details.