Unseen, drum taps start their slow, strict cadence, announcing the sound of regimented footsteps and shouted marching orders.
The sky is slate, marking no shadows for the casket that leads the full-honors funeral procession. An escort platoon a few dozen deep and a horse-drawn caisson around the corner, coming to a halt in front of five unadorned pedestals on a damp Thursday morning at Arlington National Cemetery. The band begins its dirge, and with it, a funeral 100 years in the making.
A century ago, two brothers died within four years of one another. The older, Zuinglius McCormack, died in 1912; the younger, Lycurgus McCormack, in 1908. They were both veterans of the Civil War, fighting with infantry from Indiana. Zuinglius, a lawyer, fought with the 132nd Infantry Regiment and in the Battle of Jonesboro, which led to the Union’s occupation of Atlanta. Lycurgus was also a lawyer, but he turned to a career printing the local newspaper after the war. He was one of 65,000 minutemen who mustered after rumors circulated that the Confederates were sending 6,000 cavalry units across the Ohio River.
When these brothers died years later, they may have been entitled to a military funeral. But, like thousands of other soldiers recently being rediscovered, they fell through the cracks, and out of memory. They died widowless and childless, and, until earlier this year, forgotten.
A month earlier, Burt Colvin and Rick Baum were in a crypt.
“All you could see were hundred of urns next to each other, on top of each other, behind each other, and we had to take every single one of them out,” Baum says. “The very last one, in the far back recesses in the corner was Zuinglius.”
Colvin, a 51-year-old electrician and amateur genealogist, had previously received 136 names of unclaimed cremains from the Indiana facility. He wanted to identify which were veterans, running each name through various genealogy databases for clues. “It took me over a year to determine yes or no” on veteran status, Colvin says. In researching the brothers, Colvin says he developed a connection with them. “We brought them out here and had about 11 to 12 hours in the car; it was like they were friends riding in the back seat,” he says. “It’s nice to see them here, but it will be sad to go back without them.”
Colvin and Baum volunteer with the Missing in America Project, a group dedicated to making sure every unclaimed veteran gets a proper military funeral. Since forming in 2006, the group has visited 2,782 funeral homes, amounting to a database of 16,800 names. They are slowly making their way down that list, identifying the veterans one by one, and sending the information they find to the Veterans Affairs Department for final approval. So far, 2,044 cremains have been identified, and 1,854 have been buried.
“Every funeral home, bar none, has some unclaimed remains,” Fred Salanti, the group’s executive director, says. “If they don’t have them, they transferred them to a massive crypt somewhere, but they are still in a crypt unclaimed, and not buried officially.”
They haven’t yet processed them all, but Salanti says as many of 5,000 of the names they are researching could be veterans. But that’s only from a survey of a very small portion of the approximately 22,000 funeral homes in the U.S. Missing in America estimates there could be as many as 500,000 unclaimed veterans nationwide. And with the signing of the Dignified Burial Act last year, the VA to now has the direction to bury all of them.
Although they all end up in the similar place—on a shelf in a funeral home, or in a mass crypt—the unclaimed veterans all have different stories. Some were left behind because, like the McCormacks, they had no children or wives to claim them. Other’s families were too poor to pay for a funeral, and then forgot about their loved ones. Then, there are the cases where cremains show up in storage lockers. It’s up to volunteers like Sharon Gilley, a 60-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., resident, to reclaim the story lost to the dust racks. "They found somebody’s ashes in a shed in Florida," she says of a memorable case. "And we actually found the records, found the family, and they claimed the remains. They didn’t know he was gone."
The tools she uses are available to most people: Ancestry.com, census records, property records, and others. But if someone has a common name, it can take days and weeks to pin down. Zuinglius and Lycurgus have a still-missing brother named Charles; he's going to be a lot harder to identify.
“Even if they didn’t serve in the military, somebody should remember them,” Gilley, who has a master’s in military history, says. “I look into it, I see what they are, I saw what they were. They may no longer be that to anybody else, but to me they are more than a box of ashes in the corner.”
Some funeral homes will not give over information, due to litigation fears. That is, even though the cremains lie unclaimed, there’s a small chance that the family would come searching for them, and then sue when they learn the body or personal information has been given away. In the past few years, Missing in America has successfully lobbied for legislation in 25 states, Salanti says, which releases funeral homes of liability in these situations.
The Burial of (All) the Dead
Modern pressures on the military are often couched in the term “the toll of a decade of war.” But here, in Arlington, that toll is measured in centuries. The joint committal service of the McCormacks and four other service members recovered by the Making in America project, marked the opening of the cemetery’s ninth and largest columbarium court, an outdoor concrete garden-plaza for the committal of ashes.
Without the new, 2.5 acre, $12.9 million columbarium, the cemetery would have run out of space for ashes by 2016. (Cemetery officials say that Arlington may completely run out of room by 2050.) For now, it’s 20,000 blank marble slabs; chilling to think that over the next decades they will be mostly filled.
Colvin was wearing a biker vest as the crowd milled around the columbarium, but his wife, Dianna, was in full Victorian-era funeral garb, black lace, bonnet, and all. If the McCormacks had wives (and had died during the war), this is what the women would have worn to the funeral. “Today, we are the family” is a common refrain of the Missing in America members, something Dianna is taking to literal heart. “I just wanted to be appropriate, down to the type of material, to represent the family,” she said.
Initially seen as a short-term project, Salanti now wonders if the project can ever end. However many unclaimed veterans there are, a great many more are out there who were not in the military, their names also lost to history. While the Missing in America Project does not seek to get them interred, they are still added to the database.
“That’s the sad crux of this whole problem: We’re identifying the veterans … because it is easy to get state laws passed for veterans,” Salanti says. “But we maintain a database of everyone we inventory, and someday I’m going to go back knocking.”