Local unclaimed vets to get proper burials

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Trudy Reno of McFarland Foss Funeral Home sits behind the cremated remains of 11 deceased U.S. military veterans. A new state law will allow the funeral homes to release abandoned veteran’s remains — some of which have been sitting at McFarland Foss since 1978 — for proper military burials.

‘They were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and they were left in boxes and cans on storage shelves. Everyone deserves a burial.’
— State Rep. Gino Polidori

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — From World War I to Vietnam, they served their country in the defining conflicts of the 20th century.

But decades after they left behind the calamity of the battlefield, thousands of veterans have been forgotten, their cremated remains tucked neatly away on funeral home shelves across the nation.

No longer will that be the case for a group of as many as 26 deceased local servicemen whose remains have languished, unclaimed in area funeral parlors for generations.

On Memorial Day, a horse-drawn caisson will carry a flag-draped coffin with the remains of the servicemen down Michigan Avenue, along the annual Memorial Day parade route from the Dearborn Police Department to City Hall.

At the end of the parade, a special ceremony will be held at City Hall to recognize the veterans. And then they will be transferred to a hearse and taken to Great Lakes National Cemetery, in Holly, for burial with a 21-gun salute flag-folding ceremony. The veterans’ cremains will be put in a row of the columbarium.

The memorial will be the first-of-its-kind in Michigan.

“This will be an Arlington-style procession,” said Richard Fleek, commander of the Dearborn Allied War Veterans’ Council. “The way I envision it, when I stand at the podium (at City Hall) reading off our brothers’ names, there will be 17 souls or more standing behind me in dress uniform waiting for their final inspection before taking their last orders to go home.”

The long-awaited tribute is possible thanks to some new state legislation and a dedicated group of brothers-in-arms that refused to let the old soldiers just fade away.

State Rep. Gino Polidori (D-Dearborn) sponsored the bill, which gives funeral homes the right to properly bury unclaimed veterans. A companion bill absolves funeral homes of any liability. Both go into effect this month.

The new law allows funeral directors to compile and release the names of unclaimed cremated remains to a federally chartered veterans service group to confirm whether the deceased is eligible for proper burial at a veterans cemetery.

Funeral directors will send a written notice to the veterans’ last known contact, notifying them of the plans to make a proper burial at a veterans cemetery. If the remains continue to go unclaimed, funeral directors are now permitted to make arrangements.

“Michigan isn’t the first state to do this, but we could lead the way in how to honor these fallen heroes with dignity,” said Polidori, a Vietnam veteran.

“It doesn’t matter if they were drafted or volunteered or whether they served during war or peace, they put their lives on the line for this country. They were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and they were left in boxes and cans on storage shelves. Everyone deserves a burial.”

Ted Gagacki, a founding member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 267, volunteered to help secure the cremains once he learned of Polidori’s legislation.

Gagacki said he learned about 10 cremains at McFarland-Foss Funeral Home, nine at Querfeld Funeral Home, five at Howe-Peterson Funeral Home, and two at Voran Funeral Home.

“They’re at four out of Dearborn’s six funeral homes. I was shocked,” Gagacki told city officials.

“They’re all in standard boxes put on a shelf. One gentleman has been there since 1938. No one felt any sense of urgency to do anything about it until now.”

At McFarland-Foss, more than a quarter of the funeral home’s 40 unclaimed cremains belong to deceased veterans, with the oldest dating to 1978, said Trudy Reno, assistant to funeral director Shirley Foss Thompson.
The funeral home has tried contacting their next-of-kin on a regular basis for years, she said, but to no avail.

Sometimes they wouldn’t get a response and often the letters would simply be returned, stamped “unknown address.”

Reno said it’s sad to see so many forgotten veterans and hopes that the Memorial Day ceremony – and the surrounding publicity – might help to make aware some family members of their forgotten relatives. But she knows that for many of the men, that won’t be the case.

“Many of these men were taken care of by a neighbor, or a lawyer, or someone who just wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do with the remains” said Reno, who as a teenager worked at the former Allen Park Veterans Administration Hospital.

Joe Terry, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2107, is matching the names of deceased veterans with military records called DD-214 forms to confirm their eligibility for burial in a national cemetery. So far, he has confirmed 17 of them and continues to work to certify the others.

“It’s amazing that these men were forgotten for so long,” Terry said. “Now they are going to get the proper, dignified burial they deserve.”

Throughout the United States, the unclaimed remains of 6,642 veterans have been found in 820 funeral homes, according to the Missing in America Project.

MIAP supporters have identified 698 veterans and interred 632.

Larry Root of Concord, Mich., the MIAP coordinator for Michigan, figures the number of unclaimed veterans in Detroit alone numbers in the thousands.

“A big hurdle was cleared with the new legislation, but the work is just beginning now to get these vets buried,” Root told city officials.

“I think what Dearborn is doing is wonderful. I’d like to see it done for every veteran. It takes time and work, but it’s a labor of love for a debt of service that can never be repaid.”