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Hundreds of strangers gather at cemetery to pay tribute to Connecticut veteran who died with no family

A member of the Connecticut Army National Guard Funeral Military Honors Program, right, presents American Legion Department of Connecticut Senior Vice Commander Jeffrey A. DeClerck, left, and Connecticut American Legion 4th District Commander Ronald P. Coderre, center, with a memorial flag in honor of Vietnam-era veteran Matthew Williams at New Willimantic Cemetery Thursday afternoon. Williams, who died without a family, was given a funeral with full military honors and hundreds of strangers showed up.

More than 200 people who never met Private First Class Matthew Lawrence Williams attended his graveside service with military honors at the New Willimantic Cemetery Thursday.

“Your presence here exceeds our wildest expectations,” said the Rev. Jim Beesley, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Windham, who led the service. “We are here, appropriately, to respect and honor a man who served our country, [who has] now passed.”

Word of the service spread after the American Legion and television stations shared an obituary from Potter Family Funeral Home published Wednesday that said Williams, who died in July at age 63, had no family and asked the public to come. Within 24 hours, the American Legion’s Facebook post was shared more than 900 times and a post by WFSB-TV’s was shared more than 2,000 times.

“Mr. Williams’ family made arrangements for this funeral years ago,” said Russ Benblatt, a spokesperson for the funeral home. He explained that the U.S. Army veteran’s family all died before Williams. The home estimated that about 250 people attended the service.

“We had veterans, we had active military, we had the state police, civilians,” he said. “This is truly, truly, overwhelming. We didn’t realize how big the post had gotten until this morning.”

“Truth be told, his life may have represented things that you and I agree with, or things that you and I don’t agree with …. but I’m not here for that,” Beesley said. “I’m here because of his service and seeking to honor him for that.”

Williams was born in Troy, N.Y., in 1955. He joined the army at age 18 and served in Vietnam. He was honorably discharged in April 1974 and received the National Defense Service Medal. Beesley said he has no known living family and decades of his life went without record. About 10 years ago, he entered long-term care in central Connecticut. He passed away on July 22 and was cremated.

“We don’t know of his work, we don’t know of his hobbies, we don’t know of his loves. But God knows, and I think that’s enough,” Beesley said. “His grave is likely to be a place few people come to lay flowers in the coming years, but you and I are here right now … to pay him honor.”

The pastor explained that ceremonies similar to Williams’ date back to World War I, when a British military chaplain came across a grave marked with a wooden cross, etched with the words “Unknown British Soldier.” The grave later inspired the Unknown Warrior memorial in London’s Westminster Abbey and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Among those present were leading members of the Connecticut American Legion’s 4th District and the American Legion Riders. Perry Caldwell, the chaplain for the district, said he was impressed with the response from Connecticut’s veteran and civilian communities.

“I feel proud, very proud of what everyone has done today,” said Caldwell. “When people read about this in the paper, or watch it on TV, they’re going to know that no veteran goes forgotten.”


© 2019 The Hartford Courant