Mystery girl gets second funeral, 145 years after first burial

By Katie Mettler

The gravestone that marks the new grave of a 3-year-old girl, found last month buried in San Francisco, at Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, California. Photo / AP
The gravestone that marks the new grave of a 3-year-old girl, found last month buried in San Francisco, at Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, California. Photo / AP

More than 100 people travelled to a California cemetery on Sunday to grieve for a mystery girl with the golden hair, a child laid to rest with no name, no family and no story.

Mourners tossed flowers on her grave. Someone sang Over the Rainbow. Strangers wept.

The girl's gravestone read: "The child loved around the world".

Mourners from across the state arrived not with tales to share or answers to give, but with a sense of common purpose. They hoped, in some small way, their presence might fill the empty space where her real family - her real parents - should have been but weren't. Like her, they'd likely been dead for more than a century.

This was the unknown little girl's second funeral.

The mystery surrounding the golden-haired girl, and the efforts to bury her once again, began a month ago, when a construction crew renovating a garage in a San Francisco neighbourhood sliced their shovels into the ground and struck something unnatural - a tiny, lead and bronze coffin.

Inside they found the meticulously preserved body of a small girl with curly blonde hair.

She wore signs of wealth: a hand-sewn, pleated white cotton dress with delicate lace trimmings on her petite frame; lavender tucked in her hair and laid upon her chest in the shape of a cross; eucalyptus leaves placed by her side.

And there were rose petals, dozens of them, likely scattered by the lost people who loved her decades ago.

Unsure how to proceed, the crew called the homeowner, Ericka Karner, who was staying out of state with her husband and children.

"I was shocked on one hand, obviously, because there's a small child's casket underneath the home," Karner told the Los Angeles Times. "But I wasn't necessarily super surprised, because I knew the history of the area."

The area, known as San Francisco's Richmond District, was home to a number of cemeteries in the late 1800s. But towards the end of the century, as the city continued to expand, officials passed a series of ordinances that made the living, not the dead, the priority.

One graveyard, the Odd Fellows Cemetery, existed below Karner's home. It was closed in the late 1800s and all the bodies buried there were moved, years later, to mass graves in Colma. But some, like the golden-haired mystery girl, were missed.

But when Karner turned to the medical examiner's office for help, reported the San Francisco Chronicle, she was told that since the coffin - and the remains inside - were found on her private property, they were now her responsibility. The woman was told she could purchase a burial plot for the girl or contact an archaeological company. The first option, according to the Chronicle, was quoted to Karner at US$7000. The second option would cost her US$22,000.

By the time she received a call from the public administrator, a government official responsible for managing the estates of those who die without relatives, the child had sat in the backyard, her casket no longer sealed, for 10 days. To protect the child as much as possible, the contractor built a box around her coffin, said Elissa Davey, the woman who organised the funeral.

"They just left her there because everybody's hands were tied," Davey said.

Without a name, they couldn't secure a death certificate. And without a death certificate, they couldn't get a burial permit. Eventually, the public administrator connected Davey with Karner.

Theresa Carey of San Francisco drops a handful of rose petals into the grave of the 3-year-old girl. Photo / AP
Theresa Carey of San Francisco drops a handful of rose petals into the grave of the 3-year-old girl. Photo / AP

Davey is the founder of Garden of Innocence, a non-profit based in California and dedicated to holding funeral services for abandoned or unidentified children. The services are organised by volunteers and paid for by donations. Karner welcomed Davey's help.

"This child belonged to somebody. They took great care placing her in that casket. Somebody loved that little girl."

Based on her knowledge of the cemetery's history, and on the size of the girl's teeth, Davey estimated the she died about 145 years ago at the age of 3. A professor from UC Davis collected 10 strands of hair from the girl's head, Davey said, hopeful they might be able to track the child's ancestry. After news reports circulated about the mystery child, people wrote to Garden of Innocence from every state in the US and from countries across the world with tips about her potential identity.

Psychics even called in, Davey said.

After several weeks of scrambled planning, including hiring her sister's cabinet business to build a second small coffin, Davey set the funeral date at Greenlawn Memorial Park, a cemetery not far from the mass graves that hold the Odd Fellow cemetery bodies.

"Her mum and dad may be in there," Davey said. "She needs to be where her family is."

Still without an official identity, the organisation settled on a new name: Miranda Eve.

The homeowner's daughters chose Miranda. The public administrator selected Eve.

The heart-shaped headstone marking the girl's new grave bore her assigned name:

Miranda Eve

The Child Loved Around The World

"If no one grieves, no one will remember."

About 130 people attended, Davey said. A dozen members of the Knights of Columbus in full regalia oversaw the ceremony. Mourners streamed by the girl's casket, dropping rose petals into the grave.

"These people thought they were burying their daughter for eternity," Tom Durst, 73, told the Los Angeles Times. "We wanted to be here as modern San Franciscans to represent the parents."

Angelica Awayan drove with her husband and 2-year-old daughter from Oakland to Colma for the funeral. When Over the Rainbow played, the Times reported, she began to cry.

"The love of a child," Awayan said, "goes beyond time, culture or boundaries."

Near the end of the service, Davey plead with attendees to help her find the girl's true identity. The back of the gravestone was left blank, she said, in case they're able to mark it one day with her real name.

"We're going to keep trying to figure out who she is," Davey said.

- Washington Post

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