By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The remains of an 80-year-old District resident were interred at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday after lying unclaimed in the D.C. morgue since April last year. There was no family on hand to grieve, no next of kin to receive the flag that draped his coffin; just a few concerned veterans, a chaplain's prayer and a seven-gun salute.
And so it was that Arthur A. Moorehand, an unknown soldier in his own home town, was laid to rest with as much dignity and respect as a group of caring strangers could muster.
"We have very little information about him, but we did find out from the VA that he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, that he served in the military during World War II and that he received an honorable discharge in 1977," said Cecil Byrd, executive director of the National Association of Concerned Veterans, who had helped claim the body and arrange for the military burial.
Thank goodness. Otherwise, Moorehand's remains might have ended up being unceremoniously dumped in some potter's field. And that's no way to treat a veteran.
"Sgt. Moorehand apparently outlived his closest relatives, and there was no one to claim him," Regina Powell, a member of the advocacy group Veterans Helping Veterans, told me. "He has a great-niece living in New York, but she couldn't come down to identify the body because she'd never seen him."
Standing at a chilly grave site in Arlington National Cemetery, staring at a casket bearing the remains of an all but anonymous man, you could easily imagine how such a fate might await any of us.
"Sadly, people get old, become isolated and end up dying alone," Powell said.
As a chilled wind swept the cemetery, a lone bugler achingly drove the point home with taps.
What kept Moorehand from remaining a virtual John Doe was a telephone call that the D.C. morgue received from a veterans group in New York several weeks ago. Apparently, according to Byrd, an old veteran friend of Moorehand's had been trying to get in touch with him and had found about the death through a D.C. social worker. When the morgue learned that Moorehand was a veteran, the D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs was notified.
Then the W.H. Bacon Funeral Home in Northwest was contracted to prepare the body for burial. Veterans and their families should know that the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department provides burial assistance. Considering that about 10 million veterans are 65 and older, this kind of help might be needed sooner rather than later.
VA records showed that Moorehand's wife, Elizabeth Pearl, had been buried at Arlington in 1982 in a grave site set aside for the two of them. They would finally be reunited.
At the funeral, six military honor guards carried his coffin to the grave site. They were characteristically reverent and precise. But there was something missing. Surely, there was someone in this world who cared about Moorehand as much as his fellow veterans did. Unfortunately, none could be found, not even the veteran from New York whose call had set in motion the dignified burial.
Someone read a letter of condolence from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty that said Moorehand was "loved by many." It was a nice gesture, but if it was really true, where were they?
A report from the D.C. Chief Medical Examiner's Office said that Moorehand had died of "natural causes" April 26 and that his last known residence was 273 Newcomb St. in Southeast Washington. But no one I spoke to on his block had ever heard of him.
"Our next mission is to build a support network to make sure that anytime a veteran dies, his remains are treated with dignity and respect," Byrd said. "Whether they have a next of kin or not should make no difference. We may live in a 'what have you done for me lately' kind of society, but military service to your country should stand the test of time."
A military chaplain trainee was assigned to conduct the interment service, and he did a fine job. Lacking details about Moorehand's life, he set out to lift the spirits of the gathered few by simply thanking them for giving Moorehand a proper burial.
"As the saying goes, 'Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,' " the young chaplain said.
It was certainly better than rotting away on a shelf at the morgue.