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Mystery surrounds ashes of author and WWII veteran

Had it not concerned his own ashes, it would have been exactly the kind of mystery that Parke Rouse Jr. loved to dig into: How were the cremated remains of a well-known Peninsula writer and historian left unclaimed at a Williamsburg funeral home for more than 15 years?

The question was first posed last week by a Virginian-Pilot reader and former staff member, Stephen Harriman. He emailed an editor the day after the newspaper ran a story about a group called the Missing in America Project, which queries funeral homes across the country for lists of unclaimed remains, then searches them for names of veterans and arranges proper military burials for those who are eligible.

Specifically, the story was about the first Missing in America burial in Virginia, to be held later this month. With the article was a list of the 18 Hampton Roads men set to finally be laid to rest. The fifth name from the bottom was the one that caught Harriman's attention: Lt. Parke S. Rouse Jr., 1915-1997, U.S. Navy, 1942-1946.

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A few minutes on the Internet were enough to confirm what Harriman - and soon two more readers - said about Rouse. Born in Smithfield and raised in Newport News along the banks of the James River, he had indeed contributed plentifully to Virginia as a journalist, author and historian. He began at newspapers after college, first at the Newport News Times-Herald and then at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. After four years in the Navy during World War II, including a stint on the staff of Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Chester Nimitz, he settled in Williamsburg. Over the next 40 years, he penned nearly two dozen books about Virginia. The best-known include a biography of the founder of the College of William and Mary and rich histories of Jamestown and the creation of Colonial Williamsburg.

For years, he wrote a column on the region's past for the Daily Press. He served for a time as director of the state agency that oversees the historic Jamestown settlement. He was an active member of the community, known for his kindness, his Southern gentility and his interest in people. He had many friends and fans, three children, three brothers and a devoted wife, who died five years after he did. The General Assembly honored him posthumously with a resolution that praised his contributions to the commonwealth.

How, then, was he never properly buried?

The answer, found easily in the contents of Rouse's obituary, raised new, more puzzling questions. He had not been forgotten. A public memorial service was held three days after his death at Bruton Parish Church near his home.

Also held, according to the article, was a private burial.

It had to have been an uncomfortable call to receive, but Rouse's oldest daughter, Marshall McClure, responded the way her father might have, with easy curiosity.

She listened patiently to a long explanation: how it started with the Missing in America story; how there was a list of names; how her father's was on it; how the reporter on the other end of the line had since found an obituary, and then a document compiled by the Isle of Wight Historical Society that indicated her dad had a headstone next to his wife's at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Smithfield, which the reporter had not visited to see for herself.

"It's there, all right," said McClure, a book and graphic designer who lives in Norfolk and is in her 60s.

She sounded surprised at first but not upset, and then intrigued.

"Daddy was cremated," she said. "We put a vessel in the ground that day, and we were certainly under the impression that his ashes were inside it."

She said her mother, Betsy, who died in 2002, handled the arrangements with Bucktrout Funeral Home in Williamsburg.

The likeliest explanation, McClure figured, was that there had been an administrative mistake; the unclaimed ashes that the funeral home believed were her dad's were probably someone else's.

But Tom DeCantis, vice president and general manager of Altmeyer Funeral Homes, which owns Bucktrout, disagreed.

"I have no doubt that these cremains belong to Mr. Rouse," DeCantis said in a phone interview. "They're clearly labeled."

He offered another explanation: What was buried in 1997 was only a portion of Rouse's ashes.

He said families often ask that cremated remains be split up so relatives can each keep some, or so some can be buried and some can stay with the family. In this case, for whatever reason, a portion must have been left behind, he said.

But is it possible that Rouse's wife and children buried someone else all those years ago?

DeCantis didn't want to speculate, adding that Altmeyer acquired Bucktrout only in September. He said the previous owners left their files, and he'd checked Rouse's. He found nothing of note - nothing that indicated any suspicion of a mix-up.

He asked for McClure's phone number and said he'd call her with four options: Altmeyer could deliver the unclaimed ashes to her; Altmeyer could arrange for them to be buried beneath Rouse's headstone in Smithfield; Missing in America could proceed as planned and inter them with those of the 17 other veterans; or Altmeyer could continue to store them.

Before hanging up, DeCantis answered one more question.

Was there anything in Rouse's file that indicated his family wanted his ashes divided up?

"No," he said.

McClure chose options one and three.

She told DeCantis to deliver the ashes he believes are her father's, and she told the Missing in America Project that it would be nice if they honored Rouse at their upcoming service, even if he's already been buried.

Does she think he has?

She leans toward yes, but she says she's not sure. She doesn't remember anyone in her family wanting to keep a portion of her dad's ashes, but she says it's an idea she would have been amenable to, so it's not outside the realm of possibility.

She called her brother, Parke Rouse III, who lives in Raphine, in the Shenandoah Valley. He couldn't remember anything either. Neither could her sister, Sarah, in Washington.

McClure never saw her dad after his death - he passed unexpectedly in his sleep a few months shy of 82 - and it's always bothered her a little.

But what pushes her back toward yes is a question she asked DeCantis the first time they spoke, concerning the quantity of the unclaimed ashes.

"He said he thought it was less than the typical whole amount," McClure recounted later.

Ultimately, though, the answer doesn't really matter, she said.

"We've always told ourselves that Mommy and Daddy aren't in the cemetery. They're in our hearts and our memories, and for Daddy, I think he lives on in his work."

No matter whose remains her family buried 15 years ago, McClure said she takes comfort in knowing they treated them with care. She said she'll do the same with the new ashes, which Altmeyer delivered to her Friday. She and her siblings will probably scatter them in the James River.

Only one thing bothers McClure about not knowing for sure.

"My father wouldn't have liked it," she said.

"He of all people would want the story resolved for the record of history."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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