Unclaimed remains of American war veterans will get a place of honor
By ERIC ADLER
The Kansas City Star
Through the efforts of Rich Carroll (left) and Gale Watson, more than 20 veterans including Cpl. Earl Swesey, whose ashes had been forgotten and abandoned, have been buried in the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery at Higginsville.
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Long after these war veterans served their country and died, decades after their bodies were cremated, no graves or plaques bear their names.
Their families received no flags.
They were never honored in death as soldiers.
Instead, for 70 years, the forgotten cremated remains of Pvt. John McFaydean, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, have been sitting on a shelf in a Kansas City mausoleum.
Around him are the unclaimed ashes of more than a dozen others, most of whom served in World War I. No one ever came to pick them up:
Sgt. William Kinney, who died in 1932. Cpl. Robert L. Taylor, who died in 1947. Lt. Col. Ernest G. Mark, dead since 1937 after a murder-suicide. Pvt. George McCarthy, who served in the Civil War and died in 1946 at age 102.
Extrapolating out to America’s 20,000-plus funeral homes, funeral directors and others estimate that the abandoned cremated remains of as many as 100,000 U.S. veterans sit in boxes and urns, having never received their military due.
“There are undoubtedly thousands of other veterans out there sitting on shelves waiting to be honored. It no longer has to be that way,” said Rich Carroll, a veteran who, as a manager at McGilley & Sheil Funeral Home in Kansas City, has been working to find, bury and honor veterans whose remains were never retrieved.
A year ago, the unclaimed cremated remains of 16 veterans — some of whom had served as far back as World War I, others in Vietnam — were taken from shelves at McGilley funeral homes and buried with military honors at the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Higginsville. Weeks later, eight more were buried there, including the remains of a Union soldier from the Civil War. Two wives’ remains also were buried.
Later this month, D.W. Newcomer’s Sons Funeral Homes is set to release the cremated remains of 16 veterans, including McFaydean, Mark and the others, as well as two wives, to be buried at 10 a.m. July 26 at Leavenworth National Cemetery.
“The idea is to give them the dignified burial service they deserve for what they did for our country,” said Newcomer’s director of operations John Frownfelter.
Nationally, a nonprofit called the Missing in America Project — started in California in 2006, but now run mostly out of Missouri — has been leading the effort to find and bury the abandoned remains of veterans.
The organization was started by Vietnam veteran Fred Salanti, who had been attending veterans’ funerals as a member of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group. He realized that virtually every funeral home held unclaimed cremated human remains. They sit in boxes or urns or metal cans on shelves in storage rooms or mausoleums.
By law, funeral homes are allowed to dispose of unclaimed remains after 30 days. But out of respect for the dead, and concern over possible litigation, funeral homes rarely do.
So the remains are stored, often for generations.
“We never knew when a family member would return and say, ‘Hey, I think you guys still have my grandpa,’ ” Frownfelter said.
In recent years, however, new laws in 15 states — including one passed in Missouri in 2009 — have helped to free up forgotten veterans for burial.
The laws absolve funeral homes from any litigation for handing unclaimed veterans’ remains over to veterans groups for burial. The only caveat is that before doing so, a funeral home must do its best to locate a living relative. If no next of kin can be found, the remains can be released.
Since its inception, the Missing in America Project has helped bury the remains of 1,049 veterans and currently has missions to find veterans in nearly every state. Its cause is growing.
In May, two Republican congressmen from Ohio, Reps. Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers, introduced the Missing in America Project bill, directing the secretary of Veterans Affairs to aid veterans groups in identifying the unclaimed remains of veterans who were honorably discharged. If no next of kin can be found and no money is available for burial, the Department of Veterans Affairs would cover the cost.
“There are thousands and thousands of funeral homes in the country,” said Linda Smith, a Navy veteran who coordinates the Missing in America Project’s national activities from her home at the Lake of the Ozarks. “It’s extremely important. I’m a veteran and I don’t want to be sitting on a shelf for the next 150 years. If they are out in a cemetery, that says, ‘This is a veteran.’ ”
At McGilley & Sheil in Kansas City, Carroll, who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 22 years of active and reserve military time, initiated the search for veterans among his funeral home’s unclaimed remains directly after the 2009 Missouri law was passed.
The bulk of the work was done by Gale Watson, 74, of Independence, a pipe fitter by trade who for 10 years has worked as a driver for the funeral home. For months, as a volunteer, Watson pored through musty funeral home files and ledgers, looking for clues to whether veterans’ remains might be among those stored.
“I think we went through 800 records,” Watson said. “It’s not a state law that funeral homes had to keep these (old) records. Some of them didn’t have records. Some were lost. Some were thrown away.
“But I loved doing it. They’re the ones who let us live the way we live. They needed to be buried honorably.”
The trick then was to find out through Veterans Affairs and other sources whether a service member had received the required honorable or general discharge. After that came the search for any living relatives.
The reasons cremated remains go unclaimed are as varied as the lives of the individuals.
For some families, especially those living through the Great Depression, it was a lack of money. They couldn’t afford to pay for the cremation or a funeral, so they simply left the remains behind. Others go to hard feelings about people who in life may not have been well loved. For others, death is death. Once the life of a loved one is extinguished, cremated remains hold little meaning.
Often, only scant information is known about abandoned veterans.
Among those to be buried soon at Leavenworth, it’s known that Civil War veteran McCarthy enlisted in the Union Army as a substitute soldier, paid by a St. Louis lawyer to serve in his stead.
Taylor was in the infantry in World War I. He had a wife named Florence and sold radios and televisions.
Kinney worked as a quartermaster.
Pvt. John Carpenter was stationed in France during the Great War. He would become a milkman, dying in December 1967.
Two of the dead here took their own lives, their death certificates show. One was Pvt. Cyrus Dorr, a World War I veteran.
The other is Mark, a physician in the Army who went on to become a prominent urologist in Kansas City. His cause of death in 1937: cyanide poisoning. Before he took his own life, according to newspaper accounts, he killed his wife. His teenage daughter found her parents’ bodies when she returned from a date.
To Carroll, Watson and others, what matters is not how these veterans lived or died, but only that they served their country. Each will lie in an individual gravesite with a white headstone. Taps will be played.
“To me, there is nothing worse than to know that there is a veteran sitting with his remains in an urn somewhere and no one had done him honor,” said Bill Owensby Jr., director of the Leavenworth National Cemetery. “These guys have waited all this time. Now it is time to do something for them.”
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/2011/07/02/2990053/unclaimed-remains-of-american.html#ixzz1RL6cJVSL