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Bill Would Give Unclaimed Ashes of Veterans Final Resting Place

Missing in America Project

Funeral homes across the country face a challenge that might surprise you. They’re storing thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of unclaimed cremated human remains.

A bill before the Texas Senate today would address part of the problem – at least for deceased veterans.

At a Cook-Walden Funeral Home in Austin, there’s a fountain in the entryway and plenty of plush floral-print armchairs. John Onstott, the senior vice president for the funeral home group, couldn’t guess how many unclaimed remains they have. He just says it’s more than a few.

“After a certain amount of time, we do have a place where we put them in a crypt in a mausoleum here in Austin,” Onstott said.

In Odessa, funeral director Bill Vallie has the same problem.

“We have a locked filing cabinet, four drawers, legal-sized filing cabinet, so that once we get a cremated remains back they’re placed in a safe place so that no one can tamper with them,” Vallie said.

And it’s the same story in funeral homes across the country. Vallie not only runs Sunset Memorial Gardens & Funeral Home, he’s the legislative chairman of the Texas Funeral Directors Association. He says there could be as many as 35,000 unclaimed cremated remains across the country. One case in particular sticks out from his 38 years in the business.

“I had a veteran die in a veterans hospital,” Vallie said. “The estranged sons came in, found out they were going to be out some money, and left. And it took me nine months of convincing that family that I wasn’t going to charge them anything if they would just take care of the dad’s burial.”

Just a fraction of those unclaimed remains are veterans. But vets are guaranteed burial benefits. So why would they would they go uninterred?

“The reason that we aren’t contacting the national cemeteries now is because unless we have the next of kin’s permission to do that, we can’t, we’re just holding,” Vallie said.

State Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, is chairman of the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee.

“It just made me sick to my stomach and it made me think, we can do better than this,” Menéndez said.

His first day leading the committee, Menéndez says, he received an email from the Missing in America Project. That’s a non-profit group that brings the remains of unclaimed veterans to a final resting place. The group said it had a solution for the problem: change the law to allow non-profits to claim the remains and eliminate liability. Now, a bill to do that is before the committee.

“I’m hoping and I’m pretty certain this law is really going to be the stepping stone to get things moving in Texas,” said Chad Swedberg, an Austin volunteer with the project.

If this law moves forward, Swedberg will work with area funeral homes to identify veterans.

“I’m looking forward to maybe helping this move forward,” he said. “Ideally, I guess, if I didn’t find a veteran, that’d be good news. If I do, then, okay, we’ll take care of them and make sure they get their appropriate burial.”

Swedberg is an Air Force veteran himself. He believes honoring vets with a final resting place is the right thing to do.

“It’s just an acknowledgement that they’ve sacrificed for the country,” he said. “And, by law, they’re authorized this. And it’s fitting.”

And at least for once, Menéndez says, lawmakers agree.

“There are few things on this floor that can bring far left and far right together,” he said, “but this is one of those issues.”

The bill is up for a vote today on the local and uncontested calendar. That means it’ll likely pass and head to the governor.

Cook-Walden Funeral Homes is part of a network of funeral homes that offers free services for homeless veterans.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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