- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2018

They sit on shelves, in tin cans or cardboard boxes, unclaimed and forgotten — the ashes of American heroes who never received the honor of a military burial.

In funeral homes around the country, sometimes in mass crypts or storage sheds, thousands of veterans’ cremains are neglected in obscurity. Some of these ashes have been ignored for more than 50 years with no next of kin to claim them.

But some volunteer-based veterans organizations across the U.S. are working steadily and painstakingly to locate these cremains and give them the dignified burials that their country promises to all service members.

In New Jersey last month, a volunteer nonprofit group called Mission of Honor buried 10 sets of cremains in engraved mahogany urns in the state’s military cemetery near Fort Dix, with full honors and a eulogy for each one. Among them were six veterans of World War II, two from the Vietnam era, one from the Korean War and one from World War I.

“Those ashes are from the body that wore my country’s uniform,” said Jerry Skorch, the group’s chaplain and a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. “That’s why I’m involved. That’s what we honor, and that’s what we respect. In any branch of service at any time, they served our country and fought for our freedom.”

A larger nonprofit organization, the *Missing in America Project, has been working since 2007 to locate veterans’ cremains. The group’s volunteers have visited 2,237 funeral homes across the U.S. in the past 11 years and found the ashes of 3,856 veterans to date.

The work involves sorting through all cremains found — a total of 16,830 sets so far — to determine which of the deceased have served in the military.

In one Missouri funeral home’s vault known as the “Hall of Lost Souls,” a volunteer faces years of work cataloging up to 4,000 sets of cremains resting on shelves, some dating back to the mid-19th century.

“We just discovered a funeral home and crematory in Newark [New Jersey] that we’ve been trying to get into for at least six years,” Mr. Skorch said. “Most of the funeral homes are apprehensive about opening doors to us because they want to get paid [for unclaimed cremains]. I say if their ashes have been sitting on the shelves for 20, 30, 40 years, you’re not going to get paid. Do the right thing and help us bury the veterans. That’s our story.”

Volunteer genealogists help with the research, using tools such as Ancestry.com. The Missing in America Project submits all the names of likely veterans for verification to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri, part of the National Cemetery Administration, to confirm eligibility for a military burial.

The veterans groups endeavor to find next of kin so the cremains can be turned over to the family for interment. After the discovery of a veteran’s ashes, the Missing in America Project looks for relatives by publishing a notice for 30 days in newspapers nearest to the town where the cremains are found.

In most cases, there are no next of kin. Immediate family members have died. Sometimes families couldn’t afford to pay for a funeral. Sometimes unclaimed ashes are a result of family dysfunction. The volunteer groups don’t make judgments.

“Our No. 1 goal is, we always want them to go home to family,” said Charlie Warthling, national vice president of the project. “If there is no family, that’s where you, me and the rest of America stands there that day at a memorial service, and we do full military honors for them.”

In 2013, the project brought four sets of cremains to Arlington National Cemetery for interment in a newly opened columbarium with room for 20,000 urns. Among them were the McCormack brothers, Zuinglius and Lycurgus, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and died in 1912 and 1908, respectively. Their cremains were found by Missing in America Project members Burt Colvin and Rick Baum in a crypt in Indiana that held hundreds of unclaimed urns.

At Arlington, Virginia, the McCormack brothers’ cremains were escorted in a horse-drawn caisson, with a full honor guard, for their interment.

The Mission of Honor in New Jersey has buried two veterans from the Spanish-American War. They were among the 252 veterans whom the group has interred since it was authorized by state law in 2009.

Laws have been a challenge for veterans groups.

Before 2009, funeral homes in New Jersey were not allowed to release cremains to anyone but a family member. Mission of Honor worked with the state Legislature to enact a law that allows, but doesn’t mandate, funeral homes to turn over ashes to veterans organizations.

Even with the law, Mission of Honor volunteers often need to engage in gentle persuasion with funeral homes to get a look at their storage facilities, such as the establishment in Teaneck, New Jersey, that had the cremains of about 20 veterans stored in a garage.

“We convinced them to do the right thing and let us bury the veterans,” Mr. Skorch said. “As we progress and do more and get more publicity, funeral directors are more aware of who we are and we’re not a sham.”

Once Mission of Honor takes possession of the ashes, the group holds a funeral procession to the state cemetery, escorted by dozens of motorcycle riders from clubs such as Rolling Thunder, Patriot Guard, American Legion Riders, the Blue Knights and two groups of Christian riders.

“Every cop stops traffic and lets us through with the hearse,” Mr. Skorch said. “It’s really an emotional event.”

Mr. Warthling said the Missing in America Project has been instrumental in changing laws in at least 28 states to help open the process of finding veterans’ cremains.

“Most important is to release the funeral home of any liability in case a family member shows up 10, 15 years later,” he said. “We go to your neighborhood. We always let the funeral home make the decision. They’ve been the guardians of these cremains for all these years. We do not impose — we suggest they go to the closest national cemetery. If any family does show up, we want them to be able to find them easily.”

The Missing in America Project does not charge for its services and is funded through donations. Among its largest expenses is liability insurance.

With about 330 active volunteers across the country, the group is focused on the goal of keeping a nation’s promise to its veterans.

“As a vet, the military held me accountable,” Mr. Warthling said. “We’re just holding them accountable. It was one of the benefits promised for their service. They don’t need to be sitting on a shelf or sitting in a storage facility. They need to be with their brothers and sisters. They earned it.”

* (Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the name of the group. It’s called the Missing in America Project.)

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