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They died poor, sick and forgotten. San Francisco scatters their ashes at the Golden Gate

Hundreds are dying from drug overdoses in San Francisco, and dozens will go unclaimed by a next of kin. This is the final step in their journey.

Reuben Houston, the funeral director of Colma Cremation & Funeral Services, begins a funeral service for San Francisco’s unclaimed dead by dropping flower petals in the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

They died poor, sick and forgotten. San Francisco scatters their ashes at the Golden Gate

Hundreds are dying from drug overdoses in San Francisco, and dozens will go unclaimed by a next of kin. This is the final step in their journey.

On a boat bobbing in rough swells beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, two men stand on the aft deck, leaning over a raised counter filled with brown canisters. One by one, they peel open the lids and grab the tops of the plastic bags inside, each tied off with a gold identification tag. They carefully cut off the tags, taking care not to stir the contents, and drop them into a pile.

Each of the 28 bags open before them contains the earthly remains of one of San Francisco’s unclaimed dead. And this is their funeral. They are the city’s poor and forgotten. Most died from drug overdoses in their apartments or on sidewalks. The people being buried were as young as 23 and as old as 82—men and women, white and Black, Latino and Asian, all of them San Franciscans.

Over the past three years, Reuben Houston, the owner of Colma Cremation and Funeral Services, and his assistant, Johnny Rangel, have been making monthly trips to the mouth of the Golden Gate to solemnly scatter the cremated remains of dozens of the city’s unclaimed dead.

The cremated remains of 28 unclaimed bodies leave Pier 39 on Wednesday. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Each of the 28 souls on Wednesday’s voyage died in San Francisco in January 2023. Because no one claimed them from the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner or from local hospitals, and because they had no assets to pay for a funeral, they were conveyed to Houston to administer a taxpayer-funded scattering at sea.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office could not say when this practice first began, but San Francisco has been interring its unclaimed dead this way since at least the 1980s. Everything about the ritual differs from how other major American cities dispose of their dead. Since the mid-1800s, unclaimed New Yorkers are buried in a potter’s field on Hart Island, the country’s largest public cemetery. Los Angeles County holds a public ceremony to bury its unclaimed dead in a communal grave. Last year, it was livestreamed on Facebook to encourage the public to participate.

But San Francisco finds its solution elsewhere—in the current-ripped portal where the calmer waters of the bay meet the seemingly infinite expanse of the Pacific Ocean. On board the 43-foot Bravo, the late morning sun and salt air create a sense of peace as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” plays from the boat’s speakers. Weather conditions must be perfect for Houston to take the boat out. He won’t go if it’s gloomy. High winds and rains do not mix well with scattering ashes.

Captain Brent McLain, who’s led charters from his base at Pier 39 for decades, steers the Bravo a few hundred yards from Kirby Cove where the strait is deep. Houston, smartly dressed in a bowtie and black glasses, slowly drops handful after handful of white flower petals into the water on the starboard side. It’s the same ritual he performs for paying clients, he says, as proper and dignified as if dozens of family and friends were onboard.

After a moment, Rangel takes the first container of ashes, reads the name and mouths a prayer to himself. With help from deckhand Danny Lopez, McLain ensures the boat remains positioned downwind.

A man scatters petals into the sea; boxes with ashes are on the boat deck.
Left, Reuben Houston, the funeral director of Colma Cremation and Funeral Services, releases fresh flower petals out to sea as part of a funeral service for San Francisco's unclaimed dead. Right, Houston prepares ashes for scattering. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Houston starts the ceremony with a prayer: “Father God, I thank you for this day to celebrate those who’ve passed on. Yes, their families aren’t here, but we stand before you to celebrate their lives.” It’s a nontraditional prayer of remembrance, one he never reads, because it must come from the heart.

Houston then lowers himself as close as possible to the water before slowly emptying the ashes, leaving a gray plume in the blue waters. Louis Armstrong sings. He repeats the same motions 27 more times.

The names disappear like the plumes: Luke Cottrill, Aleksy Petrov, Ulysses Griffith, Robert Gellman, Mbangi Luanzinga, Tony Wilson, Susan Wallock, Jay Bolds, Carl Kuhne III, Arnold Nutley, Kenneth Beeson, Obbie Jones, Ryan Brown, Eugene Cortez Bell, Shirley Newman, Richard Fisher, Jose Mineros, Patricia Trotter, Charles Henderson, Jesse Green, Stuart Murray, Peter Han, Jayvon Edwards, Marcello Gaines, Scott Laskaris, Jeorge Tuyeb-Briceno, Kenneth Martin and Mark Broussard.

McLain keeps cards on which he writes the exact GPS coordinates for the scattering. Just in case someone who knew the deceased ever turns up to ask where their loved one was given to the sea.

Reuben Houston scatters the remains of 28 unclaimed bodies near Kirby Cove. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

The Unclaimed

Every year, hundreds of people die in San Francisco who go unclaimed, becoming the responsibility of the city and county. Often, they are the most vulnerable people in society—impoverished, addicted, elderly, disappeared from society or a combination thereof. The disposition of their bodies is the unglamorous but critical work of the government.

San Francisco has witnessed a record number of overdose deaths over the last year, many of them from synthetic opioid fentanyl. Last year, over 800 people died from drugs. The trend line shows no signs of abating. Preliminary data shows 131 deaths for January and February.

The number of unclaimed dead has risen in step, doubling in the past 20 years. The medical examiner’s office counted 355 unclaimed dead in 2023—158, or 44%, died from drug overdoses. Half of the 28 scattered from the Bravo in March died from overdoses involving fentanyl. Three died from overdoses involving cocaine.

By comparison, San Mateo County, which has 100,000 fewer people, counted only 50 unclaimed dead in 2023. Alameda County, which has approximately double the population of San Francisco, had 122.

Though their life stories could not be more different, the people who are dying alone and penniless in San Francisco these days bear an uncanny resemblance to the city dwellers of 175 years ago, whose deaths led to the creation of the city’s medical examiner’s office. The Gold Rush era saw a legion of people turning up dead on boats, having perished during the difficult five- to six-month voyage to arrive in the City by the Bay.

A boat's rear deck with empty seats overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline.
The cremated remains of San Francisco’s unclaimed dead are transported by boat to be scattered near the Golden Gate Bridge on Wednesday. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“Collection of indigent dead, though not to be the only function, was a strong impetus for establishing the San Francisco Coroner’s Office,” according to a history of the department, written by Terence Beckington Allen. Prospectors came to San Francisco to find their fortune but often succumbed to drink or the elements.

“Often the corpse of some unknown was discovered lying in a retired spot, behind some thicker bush than usual, perhaps, or in a remote tent, or at dawn in the public streets,” states the Annals of San Francisco from 1854.

As required by state law, the medical examiner inters unclaimed bodies through its Indigent Disposition Program. Hospitals, convalescent homes and other health care facilities request the medical examiner take a patient who died while under their care if no family is found or the family is unwilling or financially unable to afford cremation or burial. Sometimes, medical examiner staff will pick up and transport dead people to its facility in the Bayview.

Once the medical examiner has the body, the clock starts for a timely disposition of remains. Medical examiner investigators search for next of kin. If an initial search comes up short, the case is referred to the Office of the Public Administrator, which provides “estate administration services” for the deceased,  including “identifying any and all family members and loved ones, searching for wills and trusts, planning the disposition of decedent’s remains, locating and managing assets, monitoring creditor claims, reviewing taxes, and administering asset distribution to heirs and beneficiaries.”

The public administrator’s investigators conduct nearly 1,000 investigations per year—about 20% of which are indigent cases. A contracted funeral home, Colma Cremation, is required to store the remains for a minimum of one year. After that period, the unclaimed dead are scattered in the bay.

Reuben Houston and his assistant, Johnny Rangel, scrape the names of the dead off the cremation containers after the funeral service. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

‘Beyond Sad’

McLain keeps the Bravo’s bow to the wind.

Houston and Rangel, having emptied all of the ashes, begin removing the identifying information from the brown canisters and then stowing them.

McLain starts the 20-minute ride back to the dock at Pier 39 and blows the boat’s horn three times, as is his tradition. It’s the final goodbye.

“I think people have gravitated to San Francisco for many reasons—for social programs, or what have you, and those who may have run away from home,” Houston said. “I believe there’s a drug overdose situation that took place here. It’s really sad—actually, it’s beyond sad—that San Francisco has ever seen this type of situation.”

Houston, 47, grew up in San Mateo and graduated from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. He was exposed to undertaking because his father was a pastor who would preach at funeral services. He worked for Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City for 20 years, directing the funerals of Mayor Ed Lee, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and San Francisco Police Officers Bryan Tuvera and Isaac Espinoza, both killed in the line of duty.

“The individual people who I’ve scattered, the people who are in my care, from the date of birth to the date of death, there’s a dash—that dash is their whole life,” Houston said.

He bought Colma Cremation in December 2019 and picked up the contract to handle the city’s unclaimed dead in 2021 on an emergency basis after another funeral home dropped out.

“This is a ministry—it’s more than a scattering. We stand in for their family and friends,” Houston said. He treats them no differently than the clients who pay for his funeral home’s services. “I’m going to do right by them.”

Not all of the unclaimed dead who are cremated by Houston are ultimately scattered by the Golden Gate Bridge. Sometimes, families come forward or are found by investigators.

Last Tuesday, Colma Cremation returned the remains of three people to the city so they could be returned to family and loved ones. That is three fewer scatterings he will be asked to conduct in the shadow of the Golden Gate. He is grateful for every one.