Program seeks to identify veterans’ ashes for burial

Published 12:28 pm Tuesday, December 24, 2013

After risking their lives protecting America’s freedoms, many veterans don’t get the recognition they deserve. But those for whom Susan Ulrich seeks a final resting place are truly forgotten.

The burial operations manager at Suffolk’s Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery is tasked with securing interments with full military honors for as many unclaimed sets of cremains that turn out to be veterans as possible.

In 2011, the state legislature effectively ordained her role as a sleuth, when it passed legislation requiring funeral homes and crematoriums to contact Ulrich about unclaimed cremains that could be veterans.


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The tools of her investigation include records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration and other government agencies.

In support of the Missing in America Project, the law relies on the cooperation of funeral homes and crematoriums; there’s no penalty for not cooperating.

“I email and talk to the funeral directors and remind them about Missing in (America),” Ulrich said. Many businesses are more than willing to help — “Some of them in Richmond will contact me directly” — while others might not return calls.

Ulrich also deals with individual citizens. “Sometimes people will call up and say, ‘We just bought a house and found remains in the closet,’” she said.

Reasons vary for the reluctance of some funeral directors, says Ulrich and her boss, Dan Kemano, director of Virginia’s three veterans cemeteries. Kemano estimates thousands of unclaimed urns reside in storerooms across the commonwealth.

“In a lot of cases, (funeral directors) are concerned that families will return later and ask (for the cremains), and then they don’t have them,” Kemano said. “But there is no more secure place than having the documentation that they are here at the state veterans’ cemetery.”

Plus, he added, legal responsibility transfers to the state as soon as cremains are documented and handed over.

Larry Spiaggi, co-owner of Richmond’s Morrissett Funeral Home and Cremation Service, says another cited reason for reluctance — that fees must be paid against an urn before it can be released — is illegal.

“If the family wants them, you can’t hold them for ransom,” he said, adding this is established by case law rather than statute.

But businesses can sue for costs, he said. “People have gone to court over it, (but) the funeral homes have lost whenever they have tried to hold something as ransom.”

Spiaggi and Ulrich recently did some business regarding 20 sets of unclaimed cremains. None of them turn out to be veterans, which Spiaggi said in this case he discovered himself after pulling the files.

Ulrich says her first step in an investigation is contacting the National Cemetery Administration office in St. Louis for a report that gives “limited information on the veteran, such as branch of service, dates of service and a service number and the file location.”

That information is used to submit a request for documents used to determine eligibility for burial. Failing that, Ulrich requests St. Louis to take a deeper look, which can include an FBI or Veterans Affairs’ Records Management Center microfilm search.

“If neither of these avenues work, a request is sent to NPRC (National Personnel Records Center). The case is worked until all avenues of resources are exhausted,” Ulrich said.

Eligible cremains receive a ceremonial service with full military honors at the closest of Virginia’s three veterans’ cemeteries — Amelia County, Dublin, or Suffolk.

Under state law, Spiaggi said, funeral homes and crematoriums can dispose of unclaimed cremains after 120 days. “Our policy here is not to dispose of them,” he added. “You never know when somebody’s going to do a little family history and show up.”

He says that an industry initiative in Pittsburgh, where businesses worked together to screen unclaimed cremains for veterans, could work in Virginia.

“I think they ended up with 40-something that were veterans and did a big mass interment with all the honors,” he said, noting the event had prompted him to peer into his own storeroom.

Spiaggi said funeral directors he’s conferred with are on board with the project.

In Suffolk, Blake Baker, vice president of R.W. Baker and Co. Funeral Home and Crematory, said he was fully supportive of the veterans’ project.

“I wish they would expand it to not just veterans,” he said, referencing ongoing tension in Virginia between sheriff’s offices and medical examiners over who incurs the costs and responsibility of unclaimed bodies.

“It’s not just the military sector of the population that needs a program like this.”

Baker said his business has a policy not to cremate without a prior understanding of who will be responsible for the ashes.

Kemano said he would like to see more funeral homes and crematoriums on board. “We are not being contacted … with the enthusiasm we thought we would when we started this program and when the law was passed,” he said.