FAYETTEVILLE — Washington County Coroner Roger Morris wants unclaimed veterans’ bodies to be buried with military honors.
“We just want to do what’s right,” said Morris, whose office cremates the remains of bodies never claimed by family or friends.
Morris and other Washington County officials are considering how best to use a Department of Veterans Affairs benefit program to reimburse the county for buying a coffin to bury qualifying veterans at the Fayetteville National Cemetery.
Of the 20 indigent deaths the coroner’s office handled last year, five were veterans, Morris said. So far this year, eight have been veterans, he said.
Unclaimed bodies become wards of the coroner, so the county must pay for cremation and burial when no one claims the body. Morris said Washington County has spent about $2,000 so far this year on cremations.
As the population increases in Washington County, so too does the number of indigent remains the county will handle, Morris said.
The Veterans Affairs unclaimed remains program would allow Washington County to be reimbursed $300 for burial costs and might pay for a plot and transportation of the body, according to the agency’s website.
A spokesman for the agency didn’t return messages.
County Attorney Brian Lester said County Judge Joseph Wood of Washington County is working with Morris and supports using the program.
“The casket reimbursement will be budget neutral with no impact on the judge’s budget, the Veteran’s Office budget or the coroner’s budget — it is simply a reimbursement,” Lester said in an email.
Washington County is paving the way for other coroners who are watching to see if it is successful, said Kevin Cleghorn, president of the Arkansas Coroners’ Association and Saline County coroner. No other county uses the benefit to bury veterans yet, he said.
“[Morris] is kind of breaking ground in the state, working toward taking care of our veterans,” Cleghorn said. “These guys [veterans] sacrificed everything for us. We should be taking care of them.”
Counties statewide are concerned about paying for and handling the remains of paupers and people whose families refuse to claim them, Cleghorn said.
No statewide numbers exist for how many bodies of indigent people, including veterans, coroners handle each year, Cleghorn said.
Discussions with coroners statewide show they are concerned about the growing number of indigent remains, Cleghorn said.
In Washington County, for example, Morris and some funeral home directors have called the county Veterans Service office asking how best to deal with the remains of unclaimed veterans, said Josh Medina, service officer.
Morris’ program will mean those veterans will have someone at their funerals, Medina said. Veterans have earned that respect, he said.
“We are all brothers and sisters,” Medina said. “They are going to have somebody there at their funeral to give them respect that they earned. Nobody should die and feel like there’s going to be nobody there for them. Every life matters.”