Arthur R. Britton Sr., of Stone Harbor, was only 15 when he served in the Army during World War I. He was wounded four times during his tour, and he died 65 years later in 1983.
On Friday, his remains and those of seven other veterans from Cape May and Atlantic counties were finally laid to rest after their ashes sat unclaimed in a Cape May Court House funeral home for years, some for more than three decades.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of veterans’ cremated remains sit in funeral homes throughout the state, never having been taken home by their families, veterans services groups say.
A 2009 law made it legal for those groups to honor and bury remains if they have sat unclaimed for more than a year, and at least one group has made it its duty to do just that.
“This was something that should have been done a long time ago,” Francis Carrasco, chairman of New Jersey’s Mission of Honor, said during a ceremony Friday morning at Radzieta Funeral Home on Hand Avenue.
Since forming in 2009, the volunteer nonprofit that’s funded entirely through donations has buried the unclaimed remains of more than 60 veterans statewide and reunited about 160 families with the ashes of ancestors they did not even know were missing.
Carrasco, of Lodi, Bergen County, said they have contacted fewer than half of the funeral homes in the state, though, and expect there could be far more cases.
“The stories we hear are unbelievable,” he said, citing financial issues, family disputes and the inability to contact relatives as just a few reasons that remains have gone unclaimed.
Groups that want to bury unclaimed remains or scatter them at sea first have to make a diligent effort to find and notify a friend or family of the deceased. The groups work with the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to also confirm the veteran statuses of the deceased.
Little information about the eight men buried Friday afternoon at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, Burlington County, by Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, could be found in The Press of Atlantic City’s archives. Only a brief obituary for one of the men — World War II veteran John J. Hollweck III, of Wildwood — could be easily found Friday, and it stated that he was born in Philadelphia, retired as a truck driver and was survived by a daughter, sister and three grandchildren.
On Friday morning, their ashes sat in wooden boxes with folded American flags on a table at the front of a room in the funeral home, which was filled with local veterans, Boy Scouts and dignitaries.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, was a primary sponsor of the legislation that made it possible for the honorary burials to take place, and he said it was a struggle getting that legislation passed because of legal hurdles.
“The alternative was having men and women who have served but have never been honored,” Van Drew said Friday.
“We should never allow any veteran in this country to be forgotten,” Cape May County Freeholder Gerald Thornton said during his remarks.
This was the first time such an event has been held in Cape May County, but Carrasco said his group has a lot of work ahead of it so that all of the state’s forgotten deceased veterans can be recognized the same way.
The group collected nearly $40,000 last year, but none of its officers is paid, according to its latest financial filings.
Instead, that money goes directly to supplies needed to host events such as the one held Friday.
“We’re hoping we can continue to get this type of support,” Carrasco told the crowd.
Contact Lee Procida:
Follow @ACPressLee on Twitter