Investigators: Veterans' cremated remains sit on shelves for years



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Posted on November 5, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 13 at 12:45 PM

Those who served in life are owed this last honor upon their death. Every veteran is guaranteed final rest in a place like Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.

Today, volunteers are paying their respects to the veteran whose cremated remains are inside a plastic urn. He died penniless and with no known family.

All the men in the honor guard need to know is that he's one of them.

"I'd like him to know that there are some people out here who have not forgotten him," said U.S. Navy Veteran Dan McClain.

This is the way it should be. But there are many veterans whose earthly remains are in limbo, gathering dust, and some would say indignity in funeral homes across the state.

Funeral Director Mike Rossey of Cheney Funeral Chapel - himself a veteran - has been holding on to a fellow army vet whose family refused to claim his cremated remains - or pay the bill.

Rossey says a family's estrangement or finances are a couple of the reasons behind his funeral home's tragic stock of unclaimed remains.

"I probably have 20. I would probably say a funeral home in a larger metropolitan area could have hundreds," he said.

That means there could potentially be thousands of unclaimed remains across the state.

Rich Cesler says a large percentage is veterans who are owed a proper burial.

Cesler is one of the founding fathers of the Missing in America Project, a volunteer effort to identify vets lost in America's funeral homes.

"We want to recover our veterans and place them in the veterans' cemeteries. We want to give them that honor. We don't want them sitting on shelves. We don't want them collecting any more dust," said Cesler.

Now Cesler, a new employee at State Veteran's Affairs, is launching his movement here in Washington State.

A draft agreement with the Washington Funeral Directors Association asks its members to turn over veteran's remains to the VA and the caring hands of those who served with them.

"These are my buddies. I would do them like they would do for me," said World War II Army veteran Ed Pawlowski.

Many funeral homes are eager to help out. But we also spoke to people in the industry who say there's a problem - liability.

Could funeral homes be digging their own graves by giving remains to anyone other than next of kin?

State law allows funeral homes to clear unclaimed bodies or remains after 90 days. But many hold them longer, in part fearing a lawsuit from that long-lost relative who shows up at the funeral home door.

"That's what scares most funeral homes. A judge or jury makes decisions based on feelings, not the actual law," said Rossey.

"It will be nice to have him somewhere where he can finally rest peacefully," said Rossey.

Rossey hands over his vet and the names of the other 20 or so unclaimed remains. The names will be run through military records to find if other veterans are in the group.

But some funeral homes worry that releasing that kind of personal information could violate strict privacy laws and they may not cooperate with the Missing In America Project.

One lawmaker is drawing up legislation to protect funeral homes against lawsuits.

While all this is sorted out, some heroes are spending another Veteran's Day on the shelf.

"They deserve to be lying with their comrades," said Cesler.


Did you know that Washington has one of the highest percentages of cremation nationwide?