In some cases, the boxes containing the earthly remains of American war dead have sat on funeral parlor shelves for half a century.
Others were cremated and left behind for years, even decades. Some families just forgot about the remains or perhaps didn't know what to do with them, funeral directors speculate.
In some cases, the veterans had no one left alive to return their ashes to the earth.
Now they do. A broad coalition of Long Island funeral directors and veterans associations will provide a ceremonial farewell for about 60 of these fallen warriors in a solemn ceremony at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale on Saturday. Several of the veterans will be interred with their wives and, in one case, a son.
The service begins at 9 a.m. and is open to the public.
"These veterans, a lot of them – no, all of them – are war heroes," said Martin Kohler, the immediate past president of the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association and event's chairman. "They deserve the recognition. It's what they deserve: A proper military funeral."
There is poignancy in their names alone: The list of the dead includes:
- Thomas H. Johnson; Army Air Corps, WWII.
- J. Ward Chapman; Merchant Marines and wife, Mary Jane.
- Chester Voorhis; Lt. Col., U.S. Army, WWII.
- Fred M. Leeston-Smith; Army WWI.
- John D. Mainwaring, Major, U.S. Army, WWII; Silver Star and Air Medal.
- Robert King Jr. U.S Navy; Robert W. King III - dependent child of Robert Jr.
- George Carling; Coast Guard, WWI.
The list goes on. Carling's cremains have been stored at in Northport since 1953, said Kohler, now Nolan's funeral director.
"I really dont know much about them," Kohler said. "That's the problem."
Perhaps the most remarkable name is Winfield Scott Roland, believed to be a veteran of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Born in New York City March 2, 1874, his documents say he was a veteran of the Cuban conflict and later became a policeman. He died Dec. 29, 1951. His ashes have remained ever since in the custody of in Huntington Station, according to manager Kevin DeFriest.
Roland will be among the veterans interred Saturday in a columbarium, a sealed, above-ground tomb of concrete and granite that can be opened to retrieve the remains of a loved one should a family member come forward one day. The columbarium can hold the remains of about 2,000 people.
Two Long Island casket companies donated the urns that will contain the veterans' ashes, Kohler said. The ashes were being held in 14 separate funeral homes across Long Island, but many more funeral homes became involved in the effort, Kohler said.
There are many reasons families don't collect cremated remains. Often, Kohler said it's a case of "out of sight, out of mind," and people trying to move on. In some cases, there is no one left to bury the dead.
After specified periods of time funeral homes can legally dispose of the ashes, but many do not. In the case of some funeral homes, the cremains are preserved and protected in perpetuity, Kohler said.
"About a year ago a couple came in and asked if they recover [a loved one] who died in 1964," said DeFriest. "Then they asked if another relative was here, as well. We had them both."
While the funeral homes had the right to dispose of the ashes, "these funeral directors, even before our time, didn't think that was right," Kohler said. "We think it's amazing that funeral directors before my time took great care with these remains, labeled, protected, them, showed respect to each of them all this time," Kohler said.
The groups involved the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Missing In America Project, LINCMO, Inc., and numerous Long Island veterans organizations.
The funeral directors actually ran the names of the deceased through a national database to confirm their identities. A U.S. war veteran is entitled to burial in a National Cemetery, such as Long Island National Cemetery, also known as Pinelawn.
So far, no one has been able to confirm for certain that Roland he was a member of Col. Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders or the other two regiments that served in that 1898 conflict in Cuba, Kohler said.
But there is circumstantial evidence: A review of Spanish-American War records by Patch revealed that a George Roland was a member of 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, mustered in at Deming, New Mexico Territory, in May of 1898 and suffered a gunshot wound to his side on June 24 in Cuba.
June 24 is the date of the Battle of Las Guasimas.
All branches of the military, including the Merchant Marines, the Coast Guard and even the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force, will be represented at Saturday's service. Korean War- and Vietnam-era veterans are also on the list.
"We're glad all these war veterans will finally have the honor they deserve, Kohler. "It's wonderful."
contributed to this report.