April 11, 2012
COLUMBUS — The daughter of an Air Force veteran whose cremated remains lay unclaimed for years alongside those of about a dozen other servicemen at a funeral home said she finds closure in knowing several groups want a burial including full military honors for him.
Julie Dickerson, the daughter of Staff Sgt. Russell Andrews Jr., said her family recognized his name during a news telecast about a military burial being prepared for the unclaimed remains of 10 Ohio veterans.
“I was surprised and kind of shocked,” she said. “But in a good way.”
Dickerson said she plans to attend the May 22 burial at Dayton National Cemetery. The burial is being coordinated by the Missing in America Project, a national group that seeks unclaimed veterans’ remains so they can be laid to rest with full military honors.
The remains of 12 veterans were discovered, but the families of two veterans declined the burial.
Dickerson, a 46-year-old from Columbus, said she finds closure in the Missing in America Project’s efforts to bury her father’s remains.
“Closure really is the word to best describe the experience,” she said. “To see he has an appropriate memorial service.”
Dickerson, who said she and her two siblings were not in daily contact with their father when he died in 1991 of heart failure, did not know his remains were on a basement shelf of a Columbus funeral home for more than 20 years. She said they were notified of his death only months later and assumed there was nothing left for them to do.
The Missing in America Project’s Ohio coordinator, Chastity Booth, said she was surprised when she spoke to Dickerson on Tuesday. Booth said in an earlier interview it was unlikely any relatives would step forward before the burial because the story of the unclaimed veterans had received extensive media exposure since they were identified in November.
“We’re thrilled,” Booth said. “And for children to step forward? We totally didn’t expect this. My day has been made.”
Booth, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother, discovered the veterans’ remains at the Cook & Son-Pallay Funeral Home in Columbus. She and a handful of other volunteers had tried to find the veterans’ next of kin by advertising in the local newspaper and searching online databases. She said the group knew the veterans’ names, service dates and whether they earned any awards.
Before Dickerson stepped forward on Tuesday, no family from the 10 remaining veterans had contacted them.
The Missing in America Project is coordinating the burial with representatives from the American Legion’s 12th Council. Hundreds of people are expected to attend the two-hour service, which will include a 21-gun salute and military-issued grave markers for each veteran.
Members of the American Legion Riders will lead an early morning procession from the funeral home in Columbus to the cemetery in Dayton, 75 miles west.
Booth said there are financial and personal reasons why families don’t claim remains, including families losing contact or no living family members remaining.
Missing in America Project vice president Linda Smith said funeral home directors often hold onto the remains because they don’t want them scattered or buried in potter’s fields, burial plots for unknown or low-income people.
“They don’t feel that’s what should happen to them,” she said. “So they hold on to them. And that’s good for us. It’s good for the veterans. Because they give us the opportunity to go in, find them, identify them and give them a full military honors funeral.”
Smith said the group has found almost 2,000 unclaimed veterans’ remains in funeral homes around the country since its start in 2006 and has been able to bury most of them.
Cook & Son-Pallay Funeral Home director Dan Pallay said that before a 1999 state law placed guidelines on how funeral homes bury unclaimed cremated remains, many kept them in their basements.
“Every funeral home that I’ve heard of has a few unclaimed ashes,” he said. “We were happy to inventory the ashes that were still here with us and see whether any were veterans.”
Smith said the Missing in America Project works with funeral homes to send letters to unclaimed veterans’ next of kin explaining their efforts to bury the remains and waits 30 days before moving forward with burial plans. She said the burial is a free service at any national or state cemetery if the veteran was honorably discharged from the military.
Federal legislation to ease communication between funeral homes and groups like the Missing in America Project was introduced last year, but determining whether cremated remains belong to a veteran still can take months, and Booth said she needs more volunteers to speed up the process.
“I’ve seen firsthand what kind of sacrifices these men and women make for their country,” she said. “They made that kind of sacrifice for us. It’s the least we could do, in terms of making sure we find those that were lost or forgotten.”