Mass burial planned in New York for 20 veterans
Families never claimed remains
GARDEN CITY, N.Y. — Anderson Alston served as an Army master sergeant in World War II. Private Frederick Hunter was a soldier from 1968 to 1971. Myron Sanford Mabry was in the Navy from May 1960 to July 1971. All of them died recently in New York City with no one to claim their remains.
Ordinarily, they would have been quietly buried in a potter’s field, their graves unmarked. Instead, they and 17 other veterans who died in recent months will receive full military honors at a mass funeral this weekend, including prayers over their flag-draped coffins, bagpipers, the playing of “Taps,’’ and local congressmen offering condolences.
The mass service today at Calverton National Cemetery on eastern Long Island — the largest of it kind in US history, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs — is part of a national initiative in recent years to clear a massive backlog of unburied or unclaimed cremated remains of both veterans and non-veterans.
“Our government promised every veteran a decent burial; that doesn’t include sitting on a shelf in some funeral home basement,’’ said Fred Salanti of Redding, Calif.
The retired Army major is the founder and executive director of the Missing in America Project, which strives to provide a respectful funeral for any veteran who received an honorable discharge.
Salanti estimates two or three million remains — mostly cremated ashes — are in morgues or on funeral home shelves. In most communities, local government pays for the cremation of the homeless or indigent, but funeral homes that provide the service are then left storing the remains, sometimes for decades, he said.
The organization presided over the September funeral of a Union Army Civil War veteran and his wife from Missouri, whose ashes remained unclaimed since 1923.
Salanti and his organization of about 800 volunteers have contacted funeral homes and morgues across the country, hoping to clear the inventory of unclaimed remains. They have been sanctioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which contacted the group about assisting with the New York City cases, Salanti said.
The New York veterans had identification documents when they died and the group worked with the VA and other agencies to confirm their military service. Some of the men were homeless or poor, although others might have simply led lonely lives with little contact with their families.
On occasion, relatives who never knew a veteran died have come forward after the group has held a burial, Salanti said.
Salanti said he does not blame the VA for the predicament, noting some veterans have been estranged from their families and there may have been no available next of kin to contact.
John Caldarelli, 75, a member of Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244 and the New York representative to the Missing in America Project, will serve as master of ceremonies at today’s funeral. The Korean War-era veteran said he feels he is repaying a promise to his comrades who gave their lives.
“They made a commitment,’’ Caldarelli said. “When our veterans are abandoned and there is no family to speak for them, I will speak for them. I am their family.’’
Michael Picerno, director of the VA’s Calverton National Cemetery, said the funeral will be the largest mass burial of unclaimed veterans in history.
“These veterans served their country and we’re here to ensure they get the honor and a burial they deserve,’’ Picerno said. “It doesn’t matter who they are or what happened to them after their service.’’