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."