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Group seeks dignity in death for homeless veterans

Staff //July 19, 2018//

Group seeks dignity in death for homeless veterans

Staff //July 19, 2018//

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Funeral directors in Richland and Lexington County are joining a nationwide effort to help give homeless veterans a proper burial.

Dignity Memorial, a network of funeral directors across the country, began a homeless veterans burial program in 2000. William Lynch, funeral director at Caughman-Harman Funeral Home, is chairing a committee bringing the program to the Midlands.

“We want to make sure our veterans are given what they are entitled to,” Lynch said at an informational meeting held Tuesday at the Richland County Coroner’s Office. “We want to work alongside other programs to take some of the cost and help coordinate a traditional burial service.”

The committee also includes William Stevens, Richland County deputy coroner; Ed Lundeen, Lexington County Veteran Affairs director; S.C. Rep. Chip Huggins; and Gene Linxwiler, director of Fort Jackson National Cemetery, among others.

Lynch said he was moved to act after hearing the story of Dennis Reidy. According to multiple local news reports, Reidy, 69, was a former Richland County deputy, Vietnam War veteran and University of South Carolina graduate who had become homeless. In January, he was found dead in the woods in Lexington County.

When no one collected the body, American Legion Post 193 arranged to have Reidy interred at Fort Jackson National Cemetery.

“(Reidy’s) story had me wondering what we could do to help these veteran groups,” Lynch said. “I wanted to bring the Dignity Memorial program to Lexington and Richland counties.”

According to Tuesday’s information session, Veterans Affairs burial benefits entitle veterans to opening and closing of the gravesite, a grave liner, a headstone and a ceremony.

On July 9, the unclaimed bodies of four veterans were buried at Fort Jackson National Cemetery. Robert Bryson, assistant director of the Fort Jackson National Cemetery, said participating in services for his fellow veterans hits home.

“To be there for them to be buried with their brothers and sisters is outstanding, and I’m thrilled to do it,” Bryson said. “I’m happy when these organizations work together to come up with a burial program. I hope it succeeds.” 

Coroner’s offices will identify and determine the eligibility of a veteran, Lynch said. To qualify for the program, veterans must have been declared indigent and be eligible for burial in a VA cemetery — having died while on active duty or having been discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.

“Most coroner’s offices have an indigent program allowing a relative to claim the body within 30 days,” Lynch said. “We have good working relationships with the coroners, so after that waiting period we would take control of the body. It’s just an extension of the current program.”

Lynch said funeral homes would take care of transportation, preparation, clothing, casket, document filing, burial flag and service coordination.

“There’s a lot of logistics that go into these funerals, and we’re going to make sure all of it is taken care of flawlessly,” Lynch said.

There is no timetable for the program’s start in the area.

Stevens said veterans make up nearly 15% of the homeless brought to the Richland County Coroner’s Office, or four to six people a year.

“We ensure that every unclaimed and homeless person is identified and taken care of and arrangements are made,” Stevens said. “We’re a part of this new program by necessity.”

In response to questions about program expenses, Lynch said the biggest cost would be time.

“Transportation and casket has some cost, but it’s not extraordinary,” Lynch said. “The VA has some reimbursement programs that we may be able to use.”

The Dignity Memorial local network includes Dunbar Funeral Homes in Columbia and Irmo, Elmwood Funeral Home in Columbia and Caughman-Harman in Lexington County.