May 15, 2008 – They wait in dusty basements, long forgotten on darkened shelves. Some have been neglected for 100 years or more. They served their country, then died, and were never claimed.
Urns holding the cremated remains of war veterans are stacked in funeral homes, cemeteries, state hospitals, and even prisons around the state – a sad end for those who served their country.
It isn’t right, says Don MacNeill, coordinator of the Missing in America Project in Massachusetts. The 47-year-old Hopkinton resident has pledged to comb every funeral home, every prison, state hospital, and pauper’s crypt until the remains of each forgotten soldier are identified and interred with military honors.
“I’m going town to town, putting the word out for volunteers,” MacNeill said. “We even have old retired vets knocking on doors.”
There’s no way to know exact numbers, said MacNeill, who as a Marine served in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s and is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide motorcycle club that attends the funerals of veterans across the country.
“My feeling is, let’s just do the right thing,” MacNeill said. In asking anyone with information about these urns to come forward, he said there will be no questions asked “and no names mentioned. Let’s just get these people put where they belong.”
The national initiative, launched last year in Oregon, already has located large caches of unclaimed remains. As of last week, according to the Missing in America website (miap.us), searchers had visited 365 funeral homes, found 4,698 cremated remains – 3,500 of which were in one location – and identified 134 veterans. Of those, 102 have been interred.
Recently, MacNeill said, he and colleague Sharon Bouchard learned of at least 200 abandoned urns in one Worcester funeral home, of which 60 are believed to be veterans.
One of the urns may have been gathering dust for as long as 80 years, MacNeill said, adding that the funeral director has been struggling for 10 years to find someplace that would take the unclaimed remains.
There have been urns that go back to the Civil War found in other states.
In Massachusetts, some leads have come from funeral directors, including in Ashland and Brookline, they said. And the search is on for remains that may be left from a former hospital for veterans in Framingham, where officials have already promised support, MacNeill said.
Bouchard is a Gold Star mother from Leominster whose two sons are Marines.
“No one ever wants to think that their loved ones and their sacrifices are forgotten,” she said. “When I thought about these people on shelves, in basements, or in flooded old state hospitals, it told me I needed to do something.”
No one should be blamed, she said. “It’s no one’s fault that these people didn’t have families, or that they couldn’t afford to be buried. It just happened. But I feel very strongly that they deserve the honor, respect, and dignity owed to them for serving their country.”
Sometimes officials at facilities aren’t aware that remains have languished on their properties, both MacNeill and Bouchard said. “If they aren’t claimed, they are just put on a shelf,” MacNeill said.
“These urns are coming out of the woodwork,” he said, renewing a call for help. “There are only five of us, and we’re already overwhelmed. When we find the urns, you can actually feel the unrest in the room.”
Massachusetts pays to inter the cremated remains of veterans in either of its two military cemeteries, in Agawam and Winchendon. A federal military cemetery is in Bourne.
“As long as they have the proper paperwork, every veteran is entitled to be buried in our cemeteries,” said Ed Flynn, a spokesman for the state Department of Veterans Services. “Our office wants to be helpful to everybody, in every way, to make sure that veterans are buried with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”
Flynn lauded the volunteer project that reminds people to remember veterans, especially, he said, “as we come up to Memorial Day.”
The Missing in America Project is in a race with the clock, though, now that states like Massachusetts allow funeral directors and others to dispose of remains that are unclaimed for at least two years “as they see fit.” That’s just a shame, MacNeill said, expressing his biggest concern, that in extreme cases some ashes could end up in a landfill.
“Now, it hits home,” he said. “They are part of history, too. Even if we can find at least one guy and bury him, then I feel the effort was for something.”