Missing in America Project to bury 28 veterans' unclaimed remains
By BILL ZLATOS | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | Published: May 12, 2014
For four years, about 250 unclaimed bodies have been cremated and stored in plastic containers awaiting mass burial by the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.
John Fabry, Pennsylvania coordinator of the Missing in America Project, suspected that some of them might have been veterans entitled to military funerals.
After talking with the military, the medical examiner's staff, a coroner and numerous funeral homes, he will bury 28 veterans with military honors on Thursday in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil.
“I'm glad we're able to do this,” said Michael Chichwak, manager of investigations for the Medical Examiner's Office.
The procession will start at 9:30 a.m. at Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science on Baum Boulevard in East Liberty and reach the cemetery about 10:30 a.m. Fabry is hoping people will volunteer to drive in the procession, help with the ceremony, or simply pay their respects.
He needs a chaplain, volunteers to fire the salute and others to fold the flags.
His organization works to ensure that the inscription on grave markers — “Not forgotten” — rings true.
“These individuals served our country in either peacetime or wartime and for whatever reason ended up in our office. Now we're able to give them the proper, dignified burial they deserve, instead of being placed in a vault with 200 other unclaimed individuals in a pauper's grave that would be unmarked,” Chichwak said.
The Missing in America Project, a national program, says on its website that it has visited 1,560 funeral homes, identified the cremated remains of 2,144 people as veterans, and buried 1,882 of them.
The veterans in the burial on Thursday represent all branches except the Coast Guard. Most died after 2010, except one who died in 2005 and another in 1993.
If family members do not claim the ashes, funeral homes store them, Fabry said. The national organization once buried a Civil War veteran whose remains sat on a shelf in the South for 92 years, he said.
Fabry became involved with the organization about two or three years ago when he purchased what became the Goldsboro-Fabry Funeral Home in Fairchance in Fayette County.
Although not a veteran, he said he feels a kinship to those in the military. His father, John Fabry Sr., crossed the Rhine with Gen. George Patton during World War II and was shot below the ear. The bullet removed his tonsils and came out the other side. Totally disabled, his father died at 38.
Fabry said he has mixed feelings about his work identifying ashes as belonging to veterans.
“Once you find an individual is a veteran, you feel bad,” he said. “Here's a person who served his country, and now nobody wants to give him a proper burial.”
That sadness is balanced by the satisfaction he feels in providing that.
The project has the support of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, a nonprofit group that helps veterans with housing and job counseling.
“The service members have sacrificed on behalf of us. For the community to rally around in this way for the final farewell is exactly what the community should do,” said Albert Mercer, a Navy veteran who is executive director of the Veterans Leadership Program.