Cremated veterans finally get their due

By Kevin Ferris

Here’s what is known of Joseph Glass, as pieced together from some recent news accounts.

Born Feb. 19, 1911. From April 1942 to August 1945, he served as an Army infantryman, and saw action at Normandy and the Rhineland. Died Jan. 25, 1993.

That’s it. But the part in the middle, those three years and more of service, was enough to get people’s attention when Glass’ cremated remains were discovered at the Alesso Funeral Home in Lodi, N.J. And enough to earn him the distinction of being among the first vets to receive their due under a much-needed new law that allows for the internment of cremated remains that have been abandoned at funeral homes, hospitals or other facilities.

There are thousands of such remains across the country. About 8,500 went unclaimed in 2006, according to Jessica Koth, a representative for the National Funeral Directors Association. That’s out of almost 800,000 cremations that year. A national vets’ group, the Missing in America Project, says on its Web site that it has identified 571 vets out of about 6,600 “cremains.”

Various reasons

The reasons for the abandonment vary, Koth says. Sometimes families can’t decide what to do with the remains. In other cases, there is no family. Funeral directors try to contact next of kin, but if unsuccessful, most then store the ashes, just in case.

But what’s commonplace in the funeral business is often news to others.

“People’s jaws just drop when they hear that these remains are left in funeral parlors,” says Assemblyman Jack Conners, a principal sponsor of the Jersey law. “They are just as shocked as I was.”

Veterans groups approached Conners about taking care of vets about two years ago, and the measure passed last year. While it isn’t official until July 1, some funeral directors have already contacted the Mission of Honor for Cremains of American Veterans. The group, funded solely through donations and staffed by volunteers, will coordinate services and burials statewide.

Jim Alesso had 12 cremains in storage, and three have been verified as vets by Mission of Honor with the help of the Veterans Administration. Internment ceremonies for two, Glass and World War II Navy vet George Wells, who died in 1984, were held May 22 at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown.

Roman Niedzwiedz, a Vietnam vet who is chairman of Mission of Honor, said the ceremonies were “fabulous.” It was a beautiful day, and he estimates at least 300 people in attendance, from Conners to military people in dress uniform to bikers from the Patriot Guard, and other groups in their colors and doo-rags.

The cremains of Glass and Wells, which had been transferred from cardboard boxes to urns marked with the emblem of each vet’s branch of service, were placed on an Army truck for the trip from Lodi to Wrightstown. About 20 cars and 200 motorcycles joined the procession, which was escorted by local and state police.

At Doyle cemetery, local chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of America provided the color guards. Three volleys each by seven riflemen were fired. A bugler blew taps. And as mourners filed past the urns at gravesite to pay their respects, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”

Flag presentation

At military funerals, the family of the deceased usually receives a flag, on behalf of a grateful nation. In this case, Glass’ flag was presented to Conners, who plans to display it in his office.

This service was just the start.

“As little as New Jersey is, it’s a big state, very populated,” Niedzwiedz says. “There are a lot of veterans because of the military bases here.”

Already, a search of the Volk-Leber Funeral Home in Teaneck, which dates to 1865, has revealed about 140 cremains, some from 1904 and 1905, Niedzwiedz says. Four veterans have been identified from there, three who served in World War I.

X Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the Editorial Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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