Ghosts in the military burial scandal

While the Penn State scandal has riveted most of the nation, Washington, D.C., has also been caught up in a scandal that is, in its own way, almost as shocking -- especially with the bad timing on the calendar. If you work in the Pentagon, this is not the kind of story you want unfolding day after day in The Washington Post in the week leading up to Veterans Day.

The headline on the latest episode: "Remains of war dead dumped in landfill."

The lede:

The Dover Air Force Base mortuary for years disposed of portions of troops’ remains by cremating them and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill, a practice that officials have since abandoned in favor of burial at sea.

The mortuary in Delaware, the main point of entry for the nation’s war dead and the target of federal investigations of alleged mishandling of remains, engaged in the practice from 2003 to 2008, according to Air Force officials. The manner of disposal was not disclosed to relatives of fallen service members.

Air Force officials acknowledged the practice ... in response to inquiries from The Washington Post. They said the procedure was limited to fragments or portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield, and which family members had said could be disposed of by the military.

This is merely the latest revelation concerning some of the strange goings on at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, the largest such facility in the armed forces. A previous story contained this rather symbolic detail, which led whistle blowers to protest what was going on.

James Parsons, who was fired in September 2010, says he believes it was because he had reported an incident in which a supervisor told him and another mortuary worker to saw off an arm bone that protruded from the body of a Marine so the body could be placed in a uniform for viewing before burial.

“I never ever saw anything like that,” said Parsons, an embalming technician. He refused to saw off the arm, leaving the task to a probationary worker. Parsons said the worker, perhaps fearing for his job, sawed off the limb.

Some of the families involved have been shocked by the burial methods, in the case of the landfill. They approved the burial of some body parts separate from the body, but didn't know precisely how this would happen.

However, in light of some of the facts that are emerging, I don't think anyone will be surprised if some of the families learned that their loved ones were buried, without their knowledge, without the shattered bodies being kept intact.

This is an emotional subject and one with heavily religious overtones -- period.

Yet as I have read the Post reports, this question has kept popping into my head: Surely military officials would not do this when dealing with the bodies of Jewish or Muslim soldiers?

Why do I say this? Traditional believers in these faiths take very seriously the need to bury the body INTACT. Why? One Jewish website notes, in language very similar to what is found on Muslim sites addressing the same issue:

Autopsies/Mutilation -- Autopsies are prohibited because it lends to the mutilation of the body. It is imperative that the body is well maintained. One of the reasons is because man was created in G_D's image, and by mutilating the body, one is transgressing this. Moreover, as indicated by our holy torah, the resuscitation of the dead will eventually take place from the ground. In order to facilitate this process on behalf of a loved one, it is imperative that the body is fully intact, and in stellar condition.

Have the bodies of Jewish and Muslim soldiers been mishandled?

So far, unless I have missed a reference, this issue has not been addressed. GetReligion readers will remember that concerns of this kind were discussed in the wake of 9/11. These traditions are not obscure, as evidenced by the questions raised by reporters about the sea burial of Osama bin Laden.

How emotion are these issues? Read this quote:

Gari-Lynn Smith, portions of whose husband’s remains were disposed of in the landfill after his 2006 death in Iraq, said she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way the Air Force had acted. She learned of the landfill disposal earlier this spring in a letter from a senior official at the Dover mortuary.

“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor,” Smith said. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”

Stay tuned. And, if readers see coverage addressing these concerns, please let us know.

Please respect our Commenting Policy