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'A wonderful day': Loved ones watch as 27 indigent remains are buried at Riverside Cemetery in Billings

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Posted at 5:33 PM, Jun 06, 2024

BILLINGS — The cremated remains of 27 indigent people were laid to rest at Riverside County Cemetery in Billings Heights Thursday.

And if it weren't for Yellowstone County commissioners, some of these remains would still be sitting unclaimed on a shelf at a funeral home.

The commissioners held a burial ceremony at the cemetery, which was attended by loved ones who were grateful for the gesture.

That included Heather Pearson, who misses a lot about her 55-year-old uncle, David George.

“He would do anything and everything to make sure I’m not homeless or going hungry, or anything like that,” Pearson said.

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David George's final resting place at Riverside Cemetery.

George died last August but was never laid to rest, which meant Pearson and her family have never been able to properly say farewell. Until Thursday.

“It means a lot to us because truthfully, there’s a lot of people that hit brick walls when it comes to their loved ones or having that closure,” added Pearson.

George's remains and the remains of 26 others were placed in the Cremation Garden at the cemetery. Some no longer have living family while others simply could not afford their own funerals.

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Heather Pearson pays her respects to her uncle, David George.

"I'm also reminded that just because you die with little or barely any means, don't mean you have to be buried in a pauper cemetery," said former Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno.

It was in 2010 when Reno noticed that Riverside Cemetery was in complete disarray.

"You remember the weeds and stuff we had here, it was just horrible," Reno added.

Reno made sure the cemetery was properly maintained, and that led the way for former Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman to create Thursday's annual event.

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Former Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman

"I just had the experience not too long ago where some people got into a rental unit and found some cremated remains," said Pitman, who is a funeral home director.

Pitman helped create the program eight years ago after seeing abandoned remains sit in the closets of funeral homes.

“We had husbands and wives where family members had sat on shelves, we’re talking about 10 to 20 years,” Pitman added.

By cremating the remains, Pitman said they're able to house more people in the cemetery at an inexpensive cost.

Joe Aguilar has been the cemetery's groundskeeper since that program started.

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Riverside Cemetery groundskeeper, Joe Aguilar

“Being a Marine and caring for people. To me, just because they passed doesn’t mean they weren’t a human being at one time,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar makes sure the cemetery is well taken care of, whether it's mowing the grass or making sure the remains are covered.

“That’s why I do what I do. To give respect to the fallen as well as the living. The families,” said Aguilar.

Once the remains are covered, he'll help the Marine Corps League place markers on the graves.

It's a community effort that allows families like Pearson's to find peace.

“They’re just asleep. We’re letting them sleep, they’re still with us. And to have such a wonderful day. They wouldn’t want it any other way,” Pearson said.

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Former Yellowstone County Commissioner, Jim Reno

As a place that's special to many, Reno hopes the public can help with a couple of requests. The first is regarding the Eagle Project garden bed at the cemetery.

"I just have a request, if there's a group of gardeners that would like to take this on. We supply the land, we supply the water," said Reno.

He also hopes to find a welder to fix the cemetery's aging arch. If you're interested, contact the Yellowstone County Commissioner's office.