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november/december 2009

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BY BOB HOPKINS

The wind came from the Northwest, cutting through the assembled with a vengeance. Newly fallen snow crunched underfoot as the Honor Guard from Allenhurst, New Jersey, VVA Chapter 12 carried Ron Kowalski to his final resting place. The bright February sun did little to lessen the cold sting. As the Marine Corps League stood at attention, a VFW Color Guard formed a corridor of honor for the casket to pass through, and an American Legion rifle squad waited to fire a salute.

A Jersey City-born hulk of a man, Kowalski was beloved by his family, friends, and comrades and was receiving the time-honored tribute afforded military veterans at the time of their passing. After the ceremony, everyone met at a nearby restaurant to eat, swap stories—real and enhanced—about Ron, and to console his family.

It was a tribute to a man who had served his country in war and peace.

Joseph P. Glass, on the other hand, served his country in the Army in World War II and was awarded medals for participating in the Normandy landings and battles in the Rhineland. George Wells, also a WWII veteran, served in the Navy. Glass died in 1993; Wells in 1984. Their cremated remains (cremains) were stored in cardboard boxes at Alesso Funeral Home in Lodi, New Jersey. Unclaimed and unburied, no Honor Guard carried the caskets. Nor was there a corridor of honor, comrades standing at attention, a final volley of fire in tribute. The final piece of the social contract between the warrior and citizenry unfulfilled, these two men shared 6-inch cardboard graves.

 

Throughout history, civilizations have honored the soldier-warriors who protect them. Athenians extolled the virtues of deceased warriors. The Etruscans buried their warriors with a circular shield. The Hibernians interred their veterans in round chambers in a standing position, weapons in hand.

The Aztecs burned their protectors in Warrior Bundles, believing their souls followed the sun to its zenith i­n the sky and then entered celestial paradise. The Sioux and the Crow adorned their honored dead in full war dress.

In these and other cultures, veterans of war and protectors during times of peace are given special ceremonial societal recognition at the time of their passing. Americans honor this obligation through a system of federal and state veterans cemeteries, along with ritualized burial ceremonies. Unfortunately, though, some veterans are forgotten.

No one knows how many cremated remains lie in funeral homes and in state hospitals. One hundred thousand cremains may exist across the nation, with 10-30 percent of them being veterans. This presents an enormous task of identification, certification for burial in federal or state veterans cemeteries, costs for transportation and purchasing urns, liability concerns of funeral homes, and a myriad of regulations concerning the proper disposal of cremains.  

State regulations governing notification to last-known survivors of intent to dispose of cremains vary in length and scope, from thirty days from date of cremation, with no required notification, to twenty years with up to two certified mail attempts. Some states have no laws that address the issues of disposal of cremains.

The reasons for abandonment of cremains are varied. Some families simply want nothing to do with the deceased. Others assume another member of the family handled it years ago. Inability of a family to pay burial costs adds to the number. And then there are the homeless, indigent, and those without families.

 

One organization addressing the issue of unclaimed veterans’ cremains on a national level is the Missing in America Project. Founded less than three years ago through the efforts of Fred Salanti, a disabled Vietnam veteran, MIAP acts as a location and coordination organization, working within the existing veterans’ burial structure. With volunteers in nearly every state, the group has focused national attention on the issue of unclaimed, unburied veterans.

While living in Oregon, Salanti learned that indigent veterans and those whose families did not want formal funeral services were interred at Eagle Point veterans cemetery with little fanfare. “I found out from the director that once a month 12-15 vets were brought there, with only a chaplain and a cemetery worker present,” he said. “The bodies were just delivered and buried. We started forming honor guards for them.”

During this process, Salanti learned about abandoned veterans’ cremains. “I started calling around,” he said. “I found out about cremains found in a storage shed in Idaho and remains turned over for burial in Nevada. There were canisters and boxes with unclaimed cremains in funeral homes all over the state of Oregon. Something had to be done.”

“I realized we needed to incorporate,” Salanti said. “Guys were running around all over the country finding and burying fellow vets, paying for transportation and costs out of their own pockets. We obtained liability coverage for our volunteers. We had people crawling into tight spaces to get to stored urns, and funeral directors were also concerned about liability issues if privacy regulations were compromised. They were a lot more willing to help knowing our people were covered.”

MIAP—along with other well-intentioned veterans groups—found both cooperation and reluctance on the part of funeral directors to help in identifying veterans’ cremains. Aside from liability issues, there was the fear of public perception of unclaimed veterans’ cremains stored in boxes and canisters, in cellars and on storage racks, for years on end. However, many funeral directors, especially those with military backgrounds, were eager to help, often absorbing costs themselves.

John Fitch is the senior vice president of the advocacy division for the National Funeral Directors Association. Having served with Special Forces in II Corps in Vietnam in 1969-70, he has an emotional attachment to unclaimed veterans’ remains.

“Initially, we were not going to engage with MIAP,” Fitch said. “There were liability issues, but our biggest concern was giving up remains to folks we didn’t know. We advised our state associations that if they were comfortable with the volunteers, then it was up to them. We take seriously our commitment to treat all remains with respect and dignity.”

Linda Smith is the national operations coordinator for MIAP. She started out as the state contact for Missouri and then moved on to the board of directors. Smith understands the concerns of Fitch and the funeral directors.

“We work with funeral homes and assure them that the ceremonies will be as private or public as they request,” she said. “Our volunteers are fully insured. If a funeral director refuses to let us in, we move on to the next one. We may go back later, if the situation changes. We ask that all of the funeral directors we work with send registered letters to the last-known kin and post it in the paper. We go beyond state laws in some cases. If a family steps forward, we do what they want.”

Identification of cremains as those of a veteran or eligible dependant can be complicated and time consuming. Searching through documents, some decades old, in funeral homes takes dedication and persistence. MIAP volunteers, as well as unaffiliated veterans who have obtained permission to do searches, do so out of a sense of comradeship and kinship to the men and women they have never met.

Critical to the process is obtaining information such as Social Security numbers and other identifiers and checking death certificates to see if the veteran’s status box is checked “yes” or “unknown.” According to Linda Smith, many older cremains are being found in the Deep South where identification is a problem. “Some of the funeral homes just don’t have those old records,” she said. It is believed that there may be some veteran cremains over 100 years old.

“In Arizona, we located one set of remains that we believe is a Spanish American War vet, but we were unable to verify that and couldn’t bury him,” Smith said. Remains going back to World War I have been verified. MIAP also has five genealogists who have offered their services.

After initial identification, eligibility requirements must be met and certification for burial in a veterans cemetery obtained by the proper authority. Smith said that MIAP uses Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis as a clearinghouse for certification.

“We have over one thousand sets of cremains awaiting certification,” she said. “We have established a national database for those who are certified for burial, where they are located, and when they were interred. Also, although we have had offers of donation of private burial sites, we have declined, burying them only in veterans cemeteries. This eliminates the cost of disinterment if a family later comes forward and wants to move the family member.”

The growing trust between the National Funeral Directors Association and its affiliated state associations and MIAP has resulted in an alliance to push for passage of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), the Veterans Missing in America Act of 2009. The act directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to cooperate with veterans service organizations that come in possession of unclaimed or abandoned human remains to help determine their eligibility for burial, cover costs of burial not covered by other means, and establish a national, publicly accessible database of those located and identified as eligible veterans. MIAP already has such a database, according to Fred Salanti, and it could act as a guide for the VA.

State laws and regulations, or a lack thereof, can hinder the location, identification, and proper burial of cremains. New Jersey has been one of a growing number of states to address this issue. Even if Rep. Tiberi’s bill is passed in Washington, state laws and practices will govern the location and interment of veteran remains in individual states.

Roman Niedzwiedz is a New Jersey representative for MIAP and a member of VVA Chapter 899. Searching existing regulations and rules governing locating and taking possession of abandoned cremains led him and other members of Chapter 899, as well as VVA’s New Jersey State Council, to conclude that legislation was the route to go.

“We started dealing with the legislature and got other veterans groups involved,” Niedzwiedz said. “We interacted with the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which controls the burial of veterans in our state cemetery. Initially, the funeral directors were resistant to the legislation, but provisions were put in the bill to address liability concerns. The bill passed and the Governor signed it. It became effective in July of this year.”

A decision was made to form a separate group to oversee implementation of the new law: the New Jersey Mission of Honor for Cremains of American Veterans. Working together, the New Jersey MOH, the State Funeral Directors Association, and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs produced a set of procedures and protocols.

“The Medical Examiner in one of our counties agreed to take physical possession of located remains if the funeral parlors were unable to hold them until we could pick them up for burial,” Niedzwiedz said.

The state of Connecticut was able to work within existing laws and regulations. According to Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, “We used our authority under the law forbidding the interment of veterans remains in a paupers’ field. The funeral directors did have a concern over liability, and I set up a series of five meetings with them and went over the law and addressed their concerns. They became willing partners and donated a hearse and urns to our veterans cemetery.” 

Illinois, Missouri, and Colorado either have passed laws governing the identification and interment of veterans’ cremains or are in the process of doing so. Other states are expected to follow.

One common theme expressed by all involved is the emotional connection to the deceased veterans and the desire to see them buried with respect and honor. From funeral parlor operators to veterans’ advocates, legislators, and directors of state veterans’ agencies, everyone expressed a visceral connection to the deceased.

“I didn’t realize how much it had affected me emotionally until I saw the expression on my face, in the newspaper, at the burial of our first two sets of remains” Schwartz said. A retired Air Force veteran and long-time VVA member, she was humbled when presented with one of the burial flags.

On May 15, 2009, Jim Alesso, a Vietnam veteran and the owner of Alesso Funeral Home in Lodi, New Jersey, turned over the cremains of Joseph P. Glass and George Wells—no longer in cardboard boxes, but in decorated and inscribed wooden burial containers—to his longtime friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Francis Carrasco, vice chairman of the Mission of Honor.

Veterans groups and bystanders stood at attention as the remains started their journey to their final resting place in the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown. Hundreds of motorcyclists from veterans clubs, along with other vehicles, were escorted down the New Jersey Turnpike by state police units and were met by a large throng of veterans and civilians at the cemetery.

John P. Glass and George Wells finally had their color guard, their corridor of honor through which they passed, and their rifle salute. As “Taps” played and veterans of several wars stood at attention, the contract between a society and its citizen-warriors finally was fully honored.

 

 

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