White Tanks Cemetery where 3,000 indigent souls are laid to rest

Near the Phoenix Rescue Mission where I have been hanging out on Fridays this summer during my study break is the White Tanks Cemetery, the burial-place Maricopa County (Metro-Phoenix) uses to bury people who are indigent. More than 3,000 persons are buried in the cemetery that was opened in 1994.

The man who heads up the burials told me they bury only on Thursdays.  Inmates from the Maricopa County jails volunteer to do the burials.


The persons buried in this cemetery are identified with metal markers about the size of coasters you would see on a coffee table. Hundreds and hundreds of these markers dot the otherwise barren desert cemetery.



Priests, pastors, nuns and others volunteer their time to lead a 2-3 minute service, while the inmates helping out look on and offer their condolences. The guy heading the operation told me, “Everyone deserves to be remembered one last time.”


A nun stands before a statue of Jesus and a plaster-of-paris open Bible at the feet of Jesus.  I’m not sure the background of these symbols, as by and large, the cemetery is utterly bare except for the hundreds and hundreds of coaster-size markers sticking about 10 inches above the ground.  Absolutely nothing else.

Last week I read 22 obituaries in Arizona’s central newspaper, “The Arizona Republic,” all of them of indigent persons. The obituaries are one-line notices of someone who died in metro-Phoenix in the last few weeks.

The county runs the obituaries in an attempt to locate someone — family, friends, relatives — who may know the person. The fellow who heads up the burials told me most people who die alone — in the streets, in apartments, wherever, are in fact identified. “They usually have some identification.”

Thus, the obituary gives their name, their age, the place they were when they died and then this line. “If you have any information on this individual, please call (602) XXX-XXX.”  The number is to one of the 3 or 4 funeral homes the county works with when proceeding with the burials.

The person who coordinates the burials said even when next-to-kin are identified and contacted, they often tell the county to go ahead and bury the person, as they really had no real relationship with the person. “Not always, of course. But more often than you’d think.”

And then sadly, about 25 times a year in the metro area, individuals die and are discovered with no identification.  None. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

And yet, it happens.  In those cases here in the Phoenix metro area, the round, coaster-size metal marker for those graves literally reads: “John Doe, #3497 (the number of the Medical case, whatever that number may be) and the date the body was found. For example: “July 31, 2017.”  That’s it.

The marker actually says John Doe or Jane Doe. The information the county does have is kept with the number of the case that is yet to be solved. You can see that medical case number one each marker of the unidentified persons.  With the John Doe or Jane Doe, you can know whether the person was male or female.

“Do you ever discover who the unnamed people are?” I asked the guy in charge of the county burials.

“Not very often,” he said. “Sometimes, yes.  Just not very often.  It’s sad.”

All the souls buried at White Tanks Cemetery was once upon a time some momma’s little baby.

“The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them both.” Proverbs 22:2.

And of course this, too.  From dust we all came — the rich, the indigent and everyone in between — and to dust we shall return. Blessed be the name of the Lord!


One thought on “White Tanks Cemetery where 3,000 indigent souls are laid to rest

  1. A very sobering article. Indeed, the rich and poor are united in having been both created by God. And both were born of a woman, who despite the circumstances of having or lacking wealth, in some manner, wanted the best for their child. It can be hard to remember the shared circumstance of life and death that we have as a common bond, but it is a centering thought. Even more so among Christian believers that find themselves in conflict with other Christians: actively remembering the shared experience of the weight of sin being removed from one’s shoulders.

    I’ve personally yet to meet a follower of Jesus that can’t identify with the experience of grace. Sometimes, it seems like that might be the only place we can agree to start from. The good news is that Jesus’s work on the cross to defeat sin is more than a good place to start from, it is everything we need.

    Thanks for sharing your experience Don.


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