“Today, we salute you,” Memphis, Tennessee, funeral director Gary Taylor said. “Today, we claim you as our own.” The occasion was a recent service for three military veterans laid to rest on a rainy morning. They were strangers to those who gathered to honor their memory. When the flags were removed from the caskets and folded, there were no family members there to receive them. The flags were passed among those in attendance.
Soldiers Arnold M. Klechka, 71, and Wesley Russell, 76, and Marine Charles B. Fox, 60, were laid to rest in the graveside service attended by about 700 people at West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery in Memphis.
Over the last 20 years, funeral homesin more than 30 cities have organized about 3,000 funerals for soldiers, sailors and Marines who died alone.
The service in Memphis was part of agrowing effort by funeral homes, medicalexaminers, Veterans Affairs andlocal veterans support groups to payfinal respects to members of the militarywhose bodies were not claimedby relatives. Apparently, no organizationhas developed nationally, but the movement has grown in Tennessee.
“We are veteran-friendly,” said Ben Chambers, general manager of Fayetteville’s Jernigan Warren Funeral Home. “We weren’t aware of the program.”
Amelia Callicott attended the Memphis funeral while remembering her late father and husband, who both served in the military. Callicott, 69, said she learned about the service through Facebook and felt she had a duty to honor the men. “It touched my heart when no one came to claim these gentlemen, these soldiers, because they fought for our freedom,” said Callicott.
Unknown veterans “still deserve dignified services and burials,” said Jeff Berry, general manager of Berry Funeral Home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Berry said the process usually begins with local medical examiners contacting state or national veterans’ cemeteries with names of people whose remains have gone unclaimed. These veterans typically were either homeless or had no surviving relatives to claim them.
Local cemeteries determine whether the service members were honorably discharged. If they were, the cemeteries then contact funeral homes, which set up memorial services. The funeral homes cover the cost, Berry said. Claims can be filed with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for grave markers, according to the Tennessee Department of Veterans’ Services.
Memorial services are publicized through veterans’ groups like the American Legion or social media. Honor guards and other active military members attend, but it’s the strangers who come out of respect for the military who bring dignity to the occasion. “Most of the time, it’s folks that had no knowledge of the person in life,” Berry said.
Veterans Affairs also provides money to individuals or companies that provide burials, caskets and transportation to cemeteries for unclaimed, deceased vets. “One thing I’ve learned in working with the veterans is that they are a tight knit group. They really support each other. It’s like a band of brothers or sisters,” Berry said.