They were quietly buried at Washington Crossing National Cemetery without fanfare: veterans who served their country but had no one to pay their last respects for the final leg of their journey.
Their final salute and military honors instead came later from a group of strangers — military brethren who converge on the sprawling Bucks County cemetery every month to carry out a solemn ritual to pay homage to members of the military who died alone, often without any known next of kin or friends.
The Guardians of the National Cemetery started the tradition in January 2010 when the national cemetery in Upper Makefield Township opened, said Robert E. Craven, president of the volunteer group. Since then, the service has been conducted on the fourth Thursday of every month, whether for a single veteran or more than a dozen, he said.
“Our ceremony is simply to acknowledge that those veterans should not, not be recognized,” Craven said. “It is the right thing to do.”
On a cold, sunny afternoon last week, about 50 people gathered at an interment shelter for an “unattended service,” military honors for six veterans who were buried in February. The service is called unattended because there were no family or friends present when their remains were interred.
A processional led by the Warrior’s Watch, veteran motorcycle riders, escorted a group of mostly veterans wearing military uniforms decorated with medals to the ceremony. A brown symbolic urn was placed on a table. A row of veterans holding American flags stood at attention as the names of the deceased were read:
Air Force Tech. Sgt. James Brown
Army Spec. 5 Theodore Crowell
Army Cpl. Robert Back
Marine Pvt. Anthony Tassa
Air Force Airman Second Class George Marshall
Navy Fireman First Class Herbert Casen
“This short yet meaningful ceremony ensures those who answered their nation’s call are honored for their service,” Jarrod Guenther, program support assistant at the cemetery, told the mourners. “Your presence here today reinforces our commitment that no veteran should take their final journey alone.”
A short distance away, a volley of three rounds was fired. A bugler sounded the 24 notes of Taps. A two-member National Guard honor team meticulously unfolded and then refolded an American flag that was presented to a volunteer who stood in for family.
The Rev. Mitch Triestman, a missionary with the Friends of Israel based in Bellmawr, Camden County, offered a short sermon, expressing appreciation to the mourners, who included regular attendees and first-timers who vowed to return next month. The service is carried out in the same manner used for an actual interment.
“You guys didn’t send cards and flowers. You stood by your love of country, of God, of faithful patriotism to be here that these men and women do not go on their final journal alone,” said Triestman, a Vietnam veteran and one of three pastors who conduct the monthly service.
Because of privacy laws, little was shared about the life history of the six veterans beyond basic information gleaned from their DD 214s: their branch of service and rank. That mattered little to the band of brothers who came to honor them.
“We had brothers that passed on to their reward with no one to say goodbye,” said William J. Kelly, 72, of Jamison, a Vietnam veteran and a senior vice commandant of the All Divisions Detachment of the Marine Corps League. “People who don’t have family need someone to show up for them.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 19.6 million veterans, including 496,777 of the 18 million who served in World War II. Now in their late 80s and 90s, World War II veterans are dying quickly, 348 of them every day, some dying alone as they outlived their family and friends.
Randy Noller, a spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the government has several programs to ensure that veterans with no known next of kin or insufficient resources are buried in a national cemetery. In 2018, the unclaimed remains of 237 veterans were interred at one of 136 national veterans cemeteries around the country, and even more were laid to rest at unattended services like the one at Washington Crossing.
Washington Crossing National Cemetery, spanning more than 200 acres, is the only active national cemetery in the region and has enough space to accommodate the military dead for at least 50 years. A free grave site and marker or headstone are available to eligible armed forces members and their spouses who meet certain active-duty requirements.
Craven, 70, of Lower Bucks, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, said the first unattended service was held for seven veterans. He said volunteers were stunned when a funeral director arrived at the cemetery to bury the remains of a veteran in a plywood casket .
“We don’t know if they had somebody, didn’t have anybody,” said Craven, a retired Homeland Security special agent. “We don’t know what the circumstances are for that veteran, other than that at the time of interment there was nobody there to stand for them.”
Some of the veterans may have been homeless, suffering from post-traumatic stress or estranged from family members who were unaware of their death or didn’t know they were eligible for burial benefits, officials said. Every effort is made to identify relatives and in some cases family members were located but unable to attend.
In those cases, the remains were laid to rest during the month in a “direct interment,” with only funeral home and cemetery workers present without a ceremony. Military honors are rendered at the “unattended service.”
“It’s an awful lot of men who are buried and no one knows anything about it,” said Robert Dennis, 71, of Langhorne, a Navy veteran, who attended the service for the first time last month. “We have to take care of our own.”
In 2017, the city of Philadelphia began its “No veteran left on a shelf” program and interred at Washington Crossing the cremains of 17 veterans that had sat in the morgue for years, said Brian W. Donnelly, a South Philadelphia funeral director who handles the services held four times a year. The last burial in November was for 22 veterans, he said.
“I didn’t realize that there were that many veterans that were unclaimed,” said Donnelly, who donates urns for the cremains. “It’s very sad to have that many people.”
It was unknown how many unclaimed remains of veterans are at the morgue at any given time, officials said. If a body is identified but family cannot be located, the Medical Examiner’s Office will have the remains cremated after 90 days, sooner if the family is found but unable or unwilling to make funeral arrangements.
There are more than 819,000 veterans in Pennsylvania, more than half 65 or older. In New Jersey, there are 340,561 veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
New Jersey does not hold official “unattended services” at its state veteran cemeteries, said Kryn P. Westhoven, a spokesperson for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. But it is not uncommon for veterans to turn out in force when there is a request to pay respects to a comrade without family.
In January, more than 1,000 mourners showed up at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, Burlington County, for services for veteran Peter Turnpu, 77, of Atco, who died without any known next of kin. The funeral director who handled his arrangements said he didn’t want him to be buried alone, too, and asked the public to attend.
New Jersey’s Mission of Honors has interred the abandoned or forgotten cremains of nearly 300 veterans at Doyle, and reunited the remains of more than 300 more with families since 2009 and plans to bury at least 38 this year. The volunteer group of veterans located the remains of two Spanish-American War veterans that had been sitting on shelves at funeral homes for more than 60 years, said Francis Carrasco, the group’s chairman.
“That’s unacceptable. They’re going to be buried with the dignity that they deserve,” Carrasco said.