The pauper’s cemetery is unremarkable. A wind blows dirt over the framed white paper that marks the grave of John Doe No. 9, dead three years. But the cemetery’s boundaries, marked by strips of fresh concrete, are widening as more illegal entrants die in Southern Arizona. For Pima County, they represent a grim reality: There’s no more room to bury them.
Using a state law that became effective last October, Pima County is going to begin cremating the remains of dead illegal border crossers it cannot identify, said county official Anita Royal.
“Look at how much space we have left here,” said the public fiduciary, waving her arm at a narrow strip of land the county is buying on the Evergreen Mortuary grounds to accommodate more of the unidentified dead.
The state cremation law is simple, instructing counties that they have the option to cremate unclaimed bodies, Royal said. Pima County is taking the state up on that only after exhaustive searches for a name or a family have been completed, she said.
A search like that takes nine to twelve months, she said.
“We look and look and look. We try to identify that person so that we can find loved ones,” she said.
Even as the county is planning the logistics of cremation, critics responded with frustration that the deaths had come to this.
“Now to suggest that we’re simply going to cremate these people is sending a signal to Mexico that the lives of these people aren’t worth as much,” said Erica Dahl-Bredine, a manager for Catholic Relief Services Mexico Program in Tucson.