If civil society exists to catch those who fall through the cracks, then James Lindley is a champion of civil society. The 34-year-old former Marine now works as a professional embalmer and mortician, and has spent roughly the last year devoted to a special crusade: securing military funerals for the unclaimed remains of dead soldiers abandoned by everyone else.
Operating out of Seattle, Washington, Mr. Lindley works to secure a final resting place at the Tahoma National Cemetery for all dead veterans from the county. As Michael Phillips reports for the Wall Street Journal, King County, Washington, sees about 250 people die “without money or family” each year. Bodily remains (usually cremated ashes) are held by the medical examiner’s office for up to two years while officials try to locate suitable next of kin or some other responsible party. Often these remains go unclaimed and the individual winds up interred in a mass grave. But if officials determine that the remains in question belong to a veteran, they put them aside. Though this saves them from the anonymity of a mass grave, usually these ashes just sit in unclaimed urns in the basement of some municipal office instead.
Which is why Mr. Lindley volunteered his funeral home to take possession of some thirty-two sets of bodily remains, working to secure proper military burials for his fallen brothers in arms. “They’re veterans. We don’t want them to go in a mass grave,” he says.
Since Lindley took on the task, the county medical examiner has stopped cremating veterans’ remains, instead handing over bodies directly to him to be embalmed and buried in caskets paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For Lindley, it’s personal. His grandfather—who raised him after his parents abandoned him—was himself a Marine who saw action in Vietnam and quietly suffered post-traumatic stress upon coming home. Instead of college, Lindley joined the Marines and wound up serving in Iraq and Kuwait, eventually coming to suffer the same PTSD his grandfather had. And last January, Lindley’s best friend from the Marines killed himself after his own battle with depression. It was shortly after then that Lindley started working on behalf of unclaimed Marines. As Lindley told the Journal, “Every time I’m helping one of these guys, it’s like I was helping my buddy.”
His work goes on, though Lindley still has good days and bad as he struggles with his own demons. At least he gets a well-deserved sense of calm from seeing his fellow Marines receive the honors they deserve.