In 1975, two World War I veterans, James Miller and Adam Heussner, died in Douglas County. Both had been born before 1900. Both were cremated, and then their ashes were set on a shelf at Wilson’s Chapel of the Roses waiting for relatives to claim them.
They never did.
Cremains of military veterans who served over the past century had been left unclaimed at Wi…
Forty-four years later, their ashes were still on the shelf. Forgotten.
On Friday, they were finally claimed by members of the Douglas County Veterans Forum and brought to the Douglas County Courthouse to be placed in the care of Douglas County Veterans Service Office Director Mary Newman-Keyes.They joined the remains of 26 other veterans left on the shelf at Wilson’s. Most had died in the 1970s and 1980s.
They included two more who served in World War I and 17 who served in World War II, along with others serving in later conflicts. All 28 will be interred next month at the Roseburg National Cemetery in May with full military honors.
It is one of the largest group of unclaimed veterans remains ever to have been recovered in this state.
Some were found in an attic room, others in the crypt at the cemetery operated by Wilson’s. They might have remained unclaimed forever if it hadn’t been for the efforts of forum member Carol Hunt. About three years ago, Hunt heard about veterans’ cremated remains that had been found at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. The state hospital remains had been rescued and interred at the Willamette National Cemetery.
So she and Gigi Grimes, the former cemetery technician for the Roseburg National Cemetery, began asking around at local funeral homes to see if any remains were left unclaimed here. Hunt said Gene Goodson, manager of Wilson’s, told them they were welcome to research his files to see if there were veterans’ remains there.
Hunt said she and Grimes walked up creaky old stairs to the attic in the Wilson’s building on Harvard Avenue and started their search.
“I remember we did it in the middle of summer and it was like 190 up there, and there was cremains all over up there. There was file cabinets, there was boxes of files, and we went through everything that was upstairs,” Hunt said. Cremains is a term for cremated remains.
They couldn’t open the windows, so they wore sleeveless shirts and brought bottles of water.
After a long search, they came up with 17 veterans. Eventually, Wilson’s found additional remains and the list expanded to 44. Then the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs helped verify that the veterans who had been found were eligible to find their final rest at the Roseburg National Cemetery. A few weren’t eligible. Others turned out to have been previously claimed by relatives. One was discovered to have been split, with some of the ashes already buried at Willamette. In the end, the final number of remains the Veterans Forum claimed on Friday was 28.
For Hunt, whose grandfather served in World War I and father served in World War II and the Korean War, the project was an emotional one.
“It just ripped my heart,” she said. “It makes me very happy that it’s coming to a close, and that they’re going to receive their honors, but it breaks my heart that it took so long to get this done when it was so easy for Chapel of the Roses to walk across the street and have them interred.”
Goodson, a retired Vietnam Era Air Force veteran who worked primarily in food service, has been the Wilson’s manager for 10 years. All the remains rescued Friday had been on the shelf there for at least a decade before he arrived. He believes the remains were kept in hopes that families would eventually pick them up, and he said it’s not the funeral home’s fault that the remains were left so long.
“It’s really the families’ responsibility to come and claim them and take care of them,” he said.
Veterans Forum President Larry Hill said the veterans who worked on the project are returning their brothers to the arms of their comrades. He said this reminds him of those veterans who were prisoners of war and missing in action.
“They’ve just been missing. They’ve been hidden away, which is the same thing as being held a prisoner in my mind, as being held hostage. It’s time that they return to the fold,” Hill said.
Past forum president Jim Little said it’s long past time they were properly remembered.
“It’s how we would want ourselves treated. These people certainly in their lifetime didn’t think they would be squirreled away in some crypt, unmarked and unknown and basically just put away like trash,” Little said.
Veterans Forum members view the remains as having in effect been left in pauper’s graves, and said the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where most if not all these veterans are believed to have died, would have paid the funeral home for their cremations. But no relatives picked up the ashes, and the funeral home never took additional steps to see that these veterans received a military memorial and interment at the national cemetery.
Hill said there’s a loophole in state law that makes that legal, and the Veterans Forum’s next project will be to lobby for a new law that would mandate that never happen to veterans’ remains again.
Mitch Sparks, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and a veteran himself, said it’s all too common for veterans to be forgotten in this way. But with the exception of the Oregon State Hospital finds, all the recoveries he remembers were smaller than this one.
Sparks said often such remains are those of veterans who have no family or who are extremely poor. He said it’s amazing that four of the remains found in Roseburg are from World War I veterans.
“It’s very heartwarming to me to see them get the honor and recognition due to them. It’s incredible,” he said.
ODVA helped research the veterans found here, tracking down military discharge documents to ensure they were eligible for burial at the national cemetery.
“You can’t be buried in a national cemetery unless you have documents. That’s the law,” he said.
Goodson, the Wilson’s manager, said he thinks the remains were kept by his predecessors because they were expecting family members to pick them up. By law, they have to be held for six months. After that, a letter can be sent to the next of kin saying they plan to dispose of them in a dignified manner.
Wilson’s has always held out hope, Goodson said, that family members will eventually return, so they’ve kept the remains rather than disposing of them. Then, too, recovering the records and writing to relatives was a more arduous task than it would be now with modern technology.
“I really don’t think that anybody ever made a conscious effort. Before cell phones and computers and everything it was handwriting letters or typing letters to mail to the families to remind them to come pick them up, and that takes time and money and things like that kind of get put aside sometimes,” Goodson said.
Goodson said things have changed under his watch. He said now if family members say they can’t pay to pick up the remains, the funeral home does send them to the national cemetery rather than leaving them on the shelf.
He said he’s glad the remains of these 28 veterans will soon be laid to rest at the national cemetery.
“The national cemetery is a much better place to spend eternity than in a dusty old attic. So I’m glad they’re doing it. It was a lot of work, but it’s done and they’re receiving the honors they deserve,” he said.
For now, Newman-Keyes has the remains in her keeping. She has been named next-of-kin because they must by law be taken in by a public official. In May, the remains will leave the courthouse in a horse-drawn carriage and be transported to the Roseburg National Cemetery. Three separate ceremonies will be held over three days. The first, May 14, will honor the four World War I veterans.
Newman-Keyes said it’s been a Herculean task for the people who’ve worked on the project. It’s been an honor to be a part of it, she said, and she’s glad that her newfound “kin” will soon be restored to the place of honor where they should have been all along.
“Finally, they’re going home,” Newman-Keyes said.
Hill, the Veterans Forum president, said he wanted to thank the state, county and city officials who helped the veterans with this project, because without them it wouldn’t have happened.
In a written statement, Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman praised the forum members, especially Hunt, Hill and Little, for their unwavering commitment to honor these forgotten veterans.
“The incredible importance of these veterans being laid to rest next to their fellow brothers and sisters in arms cannot be overstated. We are deeply honored to be involved in helping them receive complete and justified military honors,” Freeman said.