Unclaimed veterans going to a final rest
BY: Debra Durkee, Metro Source | June 21, 2011
Iron Island Museum has a long and storied history. From life as a church and a funeral home to a museum dedicated to Buffalo’s railroading history and paranormal hot spot, there’s always been a lot going on there. And a partnership between Iron Island’s president Linda Hastreiter and the Patriot Guard Riders is keeping things happening.
When Hastreiter was in the long and arduous process of converting the building from a funeral home to a museum, she made a horrifying discovery in the basement of the building. Urns, each containing unclaimed ashes, had been sitting for years. Discarded and forgotten, these ashes were of indeterminate age -- and some urns were even broken.
And it turns out, this isn’t uncommon. Most funeral homes have unclaimed remains stored somewhere on their premises, and some of these individual go unclaimed forever. After 120 days, the funeral home has the right to bury the ashes as they see fit. But sometimes, they just sit.
So Hastreiter and other members of the Patriot Guard Riders are doing their best to make sure that no veteran remains unclaimed and without the honor of a full military burial. It’s long, hard work that often involves a lot of researching and dead ends, but when everything comes together they know that there is one more individual who served their country gone to their rightful rest.
Warren Unholz, a World War II veteran who saw active combat in Europe and in Africa, will be laid to rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery on Wednesday, June 22, beside his wife. Unholz died in 1994, and remained unclaimed at Amigone Funeral Home when the sister-in-law who had been responsible for making burial arrangements had passed away herself before doing so.
Unholz had been a name on a list until Hastreiter had found his cousin on Ancestry.com. She reached out to Arizona, and the response was immediate. He explained what had happened, and that there was already a headstone and a plot ready for Unholz in Forest Lawn Cemetery where he had wanted to be buried next to his wife. Affording the burial fees, however, was a challenge.
It seemed for a long time that the only way to give him a proper burial was in Bath National Cemetery, a VA cemetery for veterans. But Hastreiter hated the idea.
“He originally wanted to be buried beside his wife, and that’s where he should be,” she says. “It kept me up at night knowing that it might not happen.”
So she started making some phone calls and writing some emails.
The response came from Assembly Member Sam Hoyt, who had also stepped up to join the cause. When he told Hastreiter to be expecting a call from Forest Lawn, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
The wait was short. Forest Lawn would not only bury Unholz beside his wife free of charge, but they would do the same for any military veteran with family already buried in their cemeteries.
“I was crying during the entire phone conversation,” says Hastreiter. “He is going to be able to be buried with his wife, and that’s what we wanted. These veterans are all going to be buried and honored as they deserve to be -- no matter how long it takes.”
Unholz’s burial will be taking place at the Forest Lawn Cemetery on June 22, with a ceremony that is open to the public. It will also be attended by his cousin from Arizona, who is flying in.
The work isn’t over yet. Hastreiter is still looking for information on another set of unclaimed remains that she believes belong to a military veteran and his wife. An archive fire destroyed written proof, and she’s hoping someone will be able to come forward with the documentation needed to give Richard Keller and his wife Leona the military burials they are entitled to.
For questions or with information on the Kellers or any other unclaimed veterans, call Hastreiter at 892-3084. For more information on the Patriot Guard Riders, visit patriotguard.org.