Fresno County started burying people in mass graves in the late 1800s, when the city was founded. In September, the county sheriff’s office held a ceremony for nearly 800 people — the ones buried there most recently.
Underneath gazebos erected by sheriffs deputies, funeral attendees sat in plastic white chairs set up on a stretch of AstroTurf. Behind the podium were two coffins wedged into freshly turned soil holding small stacked boxes of cremated ashes.
One by one, leaders of different faiths came up to a podium framed by flowers. Though their specific words varied, each conveyed roughly the same message: "Everyone deserves a dignified burial."
Some of the attendees knew the deceased. They were friends or old coworkers. Others were simply members of the public who'd come to pay their respects.
Mike Simpson and Skip Morgan, both donning leather motorcycle vests and dark shades, said they'd come to remember a man named Raymond Mata, who took his own life nearly six years ago.
“Raymond was a young man with a lot of energy and a lot of thought for other people,” said Simpson.
Simpson is an iron worker, as was Mata. The two worked on tall buildings together, risking their lives side by side, and developed a close friendship. They also rode motorcycles together.
“A bunch of things kinda came down on him,” Simpson said of his friend. “[He was] unable to cope with it I guess, and we didn’t know his history in the past, that he had had situations like that.”
Whatever Raymond was battling, Simpson says, he kept it to himself. He was always laughing and making other people laugh.
“He was one of the happiest guys you’ve ever met. He’s not somebody you forget” added Morgan, also an iron worker.
“I think that’s what the whole point of living is, somebody remembers you, right?” Morgan said. “That you’ve made a good enough impression with other people that they remember you when you’re gone."
People can end up in a potter’s field — or common grave — for a variety of reasons. Some lose touch with loved ones, or are the oldest surviving member of their families. Others have families who can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it costs to collect ashes from the morgue.
But Mata wasn’t homeless. He had a job and a family. He was even planning to get married.
Leonard Pelagio, Mata's cousin, said he was loved. When they were kids, he taught Raymond how to break dance and took him to competitions.
“All of a sudden you come out with two little five-, six- or seven-year-olds doin’ head spins, like boom! Gotcha!" Pelagio recalled, laughing. "Every competition we were in, we took first place,”
The two kept in touch as adults, and Pelagio said he had started noticing some troubling signs, including indications that Mata had been hurting himself.
“I didn't know about it until I saw his neck,” Pelagio said. “When I visited him one time I was like, 'Hey what's that on your neck?' He’s like, 'Nothin'.' I’m like, 'Nothin'? Don’t give me that nothing.' You know, he promised he would never do it again and I told him to reach out to me.”
Shortly afterwards, Mata hung himself with an electrical cord. He was 34.
After his death, Mata's family had him cremated. But there was a huge fight over who had ownership of his remains, and members of his family stopped talking to each other.
As next of kin, Raymond’s daughter was legally entitled to his ashes, but other members of his family said she never picked them up from the funeral home.
The daughter didn't respond to requests for an interview for this story.
“We were told in 30 days if nobody claimed Raymond’s ashes it was considered abandonment,” his mother, Diana Mata, said. “And then when we keep on trying — I have letters. I have emails — but we still couldn’t do anything.”
After Mata died, the funeral home refused to release his ashes to his mother.
Mata's ashes are buried in a seemingly empty lot framed by railroad tracks, cinder blocks and barbed wire. There’s no grass. The podium, gazebos and chairs set up for the memorial service have all been removed.
On a recent Saturday morning, his mother, Diana, drove from her home in Los Angeles to visit her son's gravesite. Sitting in a folding chair, next to a photo of Mata in his iron workers vest and his motorcycle, Diana explained that she did not want her son to be buried here.
He had never been abandoned, she said.
“He was loved,” Diana Mata said. “I’m the one who gave birth to him. Even though he was 34, he was my baby."
When she couldn’t get her son’s ashes, Mata held a service for him in Los Angeles, using just photos. The iron workers came, as did his grandmother, aunts and uncles and some old friends from school. So many people showed up, she said, that there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit down.
“I’m calm now," said Mata, "because I know where he’s laying at, and he’s resting."