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Finding the Lost
by Martha Kneib
When Susan Ing first looked at the place she calls the Hall of Lost Souls, she was dumbfounded. “The room just kept getting bigger. I mean, it’s big. It just kept growing.” On either side of her, lining the walls of a vault underneath the mausoleum at Valhalla Funeral Chapel, Crematory, and Cemetery on St. Charles Rock Road, were an estimated 2000-2500 boxes containing cremains that had never been claimed.
Undaunted, Susan pressed forward. She had two goals: to catalog every box, and to get those among them who were veterans a military burial. That was going to be, to put it mildly, a big job. It took months for Susan and two helpers, Kathie English and Elaine Sheahan, to document everything, and sometimes weeks to get the go-ahead for burial from Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. But, in the end, Susan prevailed. She will see twenty-two of the formerly unclaimed boxes of remains interred at Jefferson Barracks in June. To her, being present at their interment is important. “I have to represent these guys. If no family shows up, it’s me.”
For Susan, a lifelong devotee of cemeteries and their history, donating her time to the unclaimed, and especially to the veterans, is a source of great satisfaction. “My take-away moment? The fact that twenty-two men are going to be properly buried where they belong.” Two of those men, she discovered, were Civil War veterans. All twenty-two will be honored at a Memorial Day service at Valhalla on May 24, 2014, and will then be transferred to Jefferson Barracks for their final interment.
For their part, Valhalla’s staff are equally invested in the Memorial Day service. Randy Singer, Funeral Director at Valhalla, said, “I am so thankful that the founders of Valhalla saw fit to safeguard these cremated remains, so this day could happen, even after all these years.”
Working with Susan has been Don Gerspach, the State Coordinator for Missouri for the Missing in America Project. The goal of the project is to find and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of America’s veterans. Over 1900 formerly forgotten veterans have received a military burial since the project began in 2007. Gerspach, who has been involved since 2008, is responsible for coordinating between volunteers and Veterans Affairs, though providing information to veterans’ organizations and the general public is what Gerspach sees as his most important role. The more people that know of the project, the more likely family members can be found.
Reforging those family connections, however, does not always happen. In September of 2013, two sets of cremains were interred at Jefferson Barracks due to Susan’s diligence. One of them, Frank Lemon Berryhill, had no family present, and so it was Susan who received the flag from the Honor Guard. She intends to pass the flag along should anyone in the family come forward.
Susan also ensures that everyone she finds is listed as “unclaimed cremains” on Find A Grave so that there’s a chance someone in the family might stumble across the information while doing genealogy online. Often, family members have no idea that their parents, or grandparents, never picked up a relative’s remains post-cremation. Susan says most family members she hears from are at least two generations removed from the deceased, and are shocked to discover that someone in their family has been sitting in a box for decades without a burial.
One thing Susan has discovered is that being forgotten is a fate that cuts across all social and class boundaries. One might think that the affluent would never leave their relatives behind, but Susan matched one of the unclaimed boxes at Valhalla to the Busch family.
Susan has no plans to stop trying to connect the dead with the living. “There’s so many people who can’t find grandpa and don’t realize he’s been sitting on a shelf for fifty years.”
One family she found, who currently reside in Oregon, have made plans to visit St. Louis in the fall of 2014 to claim a relative left behind at Valhalla. That’s just one more person, long forgotten, that Susan has helped restore to their family. Just one more of the lost becoming found, and going home.
To learn more about the Missing in America Project, check out their website at http://www.miap.us/