Group works to give proper burials to veterans, including Fayette County residents
National cemeteries are available to provide a final resting place for those who have served the United States. But some of those who served end up cremated and placed in a pauper's grave or on a shelf in a funeral home when their remains are not claimed.
The nonprofit Missing In America Project is spearheading the effort to have veterans' remains interred “with honor, respect and dignity,” according to a pamphlet published by the organization.
Work has begun in Fayette County.
The first ceremony was held on Aug. 23, 2012, when the unclaimed remains of 14 veterans and one spouse were interred in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies near Bridgeville in Washington County.
This week, veterans John Patrick Cassidy Jr. and Roscoe J. Johnson Jr., both of Fayette County, were buried with full military honors in the same cemetery.
The organization's work is far from complete in Western Pennsylvania.
John Fabry, a funeral director at Goldsboro-Tomi Funeral Home in Fairchance, who is the Pennsylvania state coordinator for MIAP, and Lanny Golden, assistant Pennsylvania state coordinator, have started to contact funeral directors in Westmoreland, Washington and Allegheny counties.
They believe there could be more than 250 veterans among the unclaimed remains in Allegheny County funeral homes. They are asking for volunteers to help in the search. They attempt to identify all cremated remains, or cremains, and check with the Veterans Administration to see whether any are veterans. If they are, the remains may be buried in a national cemetery.
Spouses may be eligible to be buried with the veterans. The VA will provide the burial plot and may pay for the casket or urn and transportation to the burial site.
Golden, a Vietnam veteran who earned a Purple Heart for his service there, began volunteering for MIAP six years ago when he found information online.
“I thought maybe I could do something,” Golden said.
He and other volunteers began checking funeral homes in the Fayette County area.
Golden said the group is seeking volunteers to help with the search in Allegheny County and other areas in the state.
An uphill battle
Some funeral directors have declined to allow access to their unclaimed remains. Fabry said they might be worried about the legality of releasing the unclaimed remains for burial.
However, Act 101 of 2012 — sponsored by state Rep. Deberah Kula, a Democrat who represents parts of Fayette and Westmoreland counties — absolves the funeral homes from liability.
The funeral directors might be concerned about the cost of the burials.
Fabry said under a federal law that took effect on Jan. 10, the VA is authorized to pay for an urn or casket and funds to cover the cost to transport the remains to the cemetery.
Tuesdays burials were the first in the state to take place under the new law.
Stephen Slater of the Stephen D. Slater Funeral Home in Jefferson Hills said he has only one unclaimed veteran. He said he plans to provide a proper burial.
“Ultimately, that's what we do every day, anyway,” he said during a meeting with Fabry and Golden in his facility in Jefferson Hills.
Fabry said there are several hundred unclaimed remains held by Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office. He said the volunteers are working on remains that are 2 years old. They get as much information as they can from the records, then send the information to the Veterans Administration for verification. If they are veterans and left the service with other than dishonorable discharges, they are eligible.
Mike Chichwak, who is in charge of the program for Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams, said he estimates he has sent Fabry information on about 25 percent of the remains.
“When I have the opportunity, I think I have probably 50 names so far in the next batch,” Chichwak said, adding that he did not know how long it would take the MIAP volunteers and the VA to sort out the veterans.Chichwak said he and Williams want to work with MIAP so that the veterans can be properly buried.
A growing problem
Chichwak believes the problem of unclaimed remains is growing in Allegheny County.
“The unclaimed cases seem to be growing every year,” he said. “Last year, there were 60 that we had cremated.”
One problem remains. There have been mass burials of unclaimed remains by the medical examiner's office in the past.
No one knows how many of those buried were veterans. Fabry and Golden were hopeful of eventually going back through those records.
While it probably would not be possible to move those remains to the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, Golden believes a marker could be placed at the mass burial site with the names of the veterans listed. Chichwak agreed that that might be possible.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-626-3538.