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California cemetery counts 556 unmarked veteran graves, vows to install headstones

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

Jim LaMar doesn’t think anyone who has served in America’s armed forces would believe that they might someday be laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

So when LaMar, the president of Greenlawn Funeral Homes and Cemeteries, discovered that there were an unknown number of such graves in Greenlawn’s two cemeteries, he vowed to provide an accurate count by Memorial Day — and then do something to fix it.

On Monday, LaMar kept his promise.

“There are 8,886 veterans resting in our two cemeteries,” LaMar said at a press event held Monday at Greenlawn Northeast.

“Of those,” he said, “556 are unmarked.”

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It’s an astounding number.

Five hundred fifty-six graves covered only by green grass. Five hundred fifty-six military veterans with no markers on their graves, no names to identify them.

“That’s a tragedy. These people served our country. They’ve been forgotten,” he said.

As a Vietnam veteran, it bothers Bill Potter as well. The board member at VFW Post 97, which is assisting Greenlawn with this gargantuan project, said it’s not right that visitors can walk through a cemetery, see a blank area between graves, and not know a veteran is even there, much less more than 500.

But the number 556 has another significance, LaMar said. It’s the exact number of gravestones that will be placed on those lonely graves.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs furnishes at no charge a headstone for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.

So, why do so many graves remain unmarked?

According to VFW Post 97 Cmdr. Wayne Wright, there are any number of reasons. Maybe a family only had enough money to cover the funeral and burial. For some families, the $400 for the perpetual care endowment, and the $200 placement fee to set the gravestone in concrete may have been more than they could afford.

Maybe there was no family available to take care of those details.

“Maybe a family rift,” he said.

Family members may have died or moved away.

“A multitude of reasons,” he said.

For LaMar, the reasons no longer matter. He’s decided Greenlawn is going to cover the cost of the fees for all 556 unmarked graves. And he has the OK from the parent company.

Still, the math is daunting. Multiply 556 veteran graves by $600 in lost fees and you come up with more than $333,000 in lost fees.

Another hurdle is getting approval from 556 families, some going back to the 1940s or further.

Impossible, La Mar said. The only way to get this done is to just do it.

“We’ll ask for forgiveness, rather than permission,” he said.

LaMar believes this issue is commonplace, not just at Greenlawn, but in cemeteries across Kern County, California and the United States.

“With the help of these gentlemen in the veteran’s department, we will be ordering those markers,” LaMar said. “And looking forward to close to 600 headstones going out to mark the graves, now and forever.

“We hope that our compatriots in the business, the other cemeteries in Kern County, will do the same.

“And then this campaign moves throughout the state, that no veteran is forgotten. And then it moves nationally.”

There could be hundreds of thousands of veteran graves, across the nation, he said, that remain unmarked. A national movement may be needed. And it starts here.

“I’m thankful we are a part of that, and we can make right this injustice for all those years these graves have been unmarked.”

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© 2020 The Bakersfield Californian