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He died homeless in a burning car. But friends, family look past the tragedy to recall the love

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 02: Christopher C. Buchanan holds a funeral service program for his older brother Clay Buchanan at True Everfaithful Baptist Church in Los Angeles, CA on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Clay Buchanan, 50, was killed in August when someone set his vehicle on fire while he slept in South L.A. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Christopher C. Buchanan holds a funeral service program for his older brother Clay Buchanan at True Everfaithful Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Saturday. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It was drizzling late Saturday morning when dozens of mourners began to make their way inside the True Everfaithful Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.

Past the church’s wooden doors and row of blue cushion pews, funeral wreaths made up of white roses surrounded a blue and white urn filled with the ashes of 50-year-old Clay Buchanan.

Last month, Buchanan was asleep in his Ford SUV at 102nd Street and Avalon Boulevard in South L.A. when someone set fire to it. He'd temporarily been living in the vehicle. His family said he suffered third-degree burns over 90% of his body and died hours later at a hospital.

Buchanan’s niece, Larente Murray, said her uncle suffered a stroke in 2020 while he was in an induced coma because of COVID-19. Ever since then, he'd been using a walker to get around.

A man greets guests before the start of a funeral service for his older brother Clay Buchanan.
Christopher C. Buchanan greets guests before the start of a funeral service for brother Clay Buchanan. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly a hundred people who had been part of Buchanan’s orbit gathered at the church to bid farewell to a man who had been a brother, an uncle, a friend and a mentor.

Friends and family said Buchanan was known to have a bit of a hard shell because of the hardships he'd faced in life, but it was his big heart and love for many people that stood out.

When it came time to share memories of Buchanan, no one could do it without laughing or crying, sometimes both.

Standing behind a wooden podium, Veronica Orozco’s 12-year-old daughter, Karissa Segura, spoke about how much she cared for a man she considered her uncle. Orozco was a longtime friend of Buchanan.

“We all have amazing memories of him,” Karissa said. “But my favorite memory of him was when he would read books to me because he would do it in character.”

“I love my Uncle Clay so much," she said, "and he will always live in our hearts.”

Ruby Gradillas, 51, broke down at times as she spoke about her longtime friend. The crowd chuckled and nodded when she mentioned his love for food. Others spoke about meals they'd had with Buchanan, including fried oysters and tamales in East Los Angeles, as well as his homemade enchiladas.

“He was my sugarbear and I’m going to miss him,” Gradillas said, crying. “I’m going to regret not having answered all his calls.”

Nearly a month before his death in August, Buchanan had been staying with different relatives until he decided to give his family a break and start sleeping in his Ford SUV while he waited for permanent housing. Family and friends often checked on him, sometimes spending hours with him to ensure he was doing well.

Buchanan chose the South L.A. neighborhood known as Green Meadows because it was where he had been raised, family and friends said. Neighbors, many of them Latinos, said they grew fond of Buchanan because he spoke Spanish. Some would call him tio — uncle.

Almost everyone said Buchanan was a kind and generous person, often buying food for other homeless people in the area, even when he didn’t have enough for himself.

A makeshift memorial sits near the site of the car fire. Last week, Buchanan’s niece, Murray, and his sister, Trina Magee, gathered at the site on a Friday afternoon to celebrate what would have been his 51st birthday.

At the site that afternoon, Magee broke into tears, placing her hand on her stomach and chest when she saw the flowers and a photo of her brother.

“This was so evil, so ugly,” she said. “Oh Clayto, I’m so sorry Clayto.”

Los Angeles Police Department detectives have said little about the case but believe someone deliberately set the vehicle on fire and are searching for the person or people involved.

An urn is surrounded by an arrangement of white roses. Behind the flowers stands a photo of a man.
An urn holds Clay Buchanan's remains. A funeral service was held for him at True Everfaithful Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Saturday. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Family members hoped Saturday’s ceremony would serve as an alternate ending to Buchanan’s life, one that shows that he was loved by many.

At the end of Saturday’s service, Clay Buchanan’s younger brother, Chris Buchanan, said his big brother meant everything to him, so much so that Chris' son bears both their names, Chris Clay Buchanan.

“He was my brother, a guide to me, a protector, anything and everything you can be to a person,” he said. “I have my family, I have my wife, I have your support, but at the same time, it’s just like my life for sure will never be the same.”

He added: “People ask who my brother was; just look around at each other, see the diversity of people that’s in here, and that tells you who Clay was. So, that being said, I’m going to tell my brother for the last time goodbye, and I’ll see you when I get there.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.