Without family, a deceased veteran's final honor is red tape
Published: September 13, 2011
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With no known local family, a pending funeral date awaits decorated Vietnam War sharpshooter David Collins, 61, who died Aug. 5 after living for 15 years on St. Thomas.
For the sixth week, Collins' body has lain in an icebox: at the Schneider Hospital morgue for two weeks and at John Thomas Memorial Chapel's refrigerator, where it remains today.
Collins, 61, died of liver failure at Schneider Hospital.
Collins was homeless during his first eight years on-island; and during the last seven, he paid his $650 Frenchtown apartment rent on time, his landlady said.
"I spent days and days trying to find a way to bury this man," said Abigail Munson, Collins' landlady and a longtime friend.
"They're saying they're not going to bury the body until they get the money," Munson said of complications between the funeral home and the V.I. Human Services Department. "So he's decaying."
V.I. Code authorizes "indigent burials" for people without the resources or family for such a costly service. Human Services determines who qualifies.
V.I. Code also empowers the V.I. Veteran's Affairs Office to provide up to $3,500 to bury those deployed from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Collins, a native of Medford, Ore., was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps April 5, 1968, in Eureka, Calif. He was 18 years old, and he served nine months and five days in combat, earning a Rifle Sharpshooter Badge, among other honors.
Collins' Report of Transfer or Discharge reveals his possible eligibility for $10,000 in Servicemen's Group Life Insurance, but no local connections have confirmed whether he still qualifies.
As Tropical Storm Irene approached St. Thomas last month, Schneider Hospital representatives asked local funeral homes to remove bodies - most of which already were committed for private services - to make space, according to a funeral home owner, a funeral home operator and the Commissioner of the Human Services Department.
Because Collins' body was unclaimed, it became a Human Services indigent contract, which Davis Funeral Home handles.
But Davis Funeral Home owner Philip Davis said the process begins after the Office of Intake and Emergency Services confirms the available funding.
"The scuttlebutt is, during the storm, John Thomas was given that body," Davis said. "We have the contract for Human Services. When we get the paperwork from Human Services, we move on it."
Rebecca Williams, who manages John Thomas Memorial Chapel, said hospital staff asked her to retrieve Collins' body on Aug. 21, a Sunday.
"The morgue was at its capacity, and they didn't know if they were going to get more fatalities. It's not a storage facility," Williams said. "That Sunday morning, they asked me if I would be willing to do it. They informed me this was a Human Services case."
Williams said the body was so badly decomposed, it was too late for some embalming; filling it with a hardening agent was out of the question.
"He's passed that. He's been gone so long," she said. "When you're in a cooler - it doesn't matter how cold it is - it causes skin problems. He's starting to turn green. I put him in a sealed container in case the electricity would go off, what's left of him."
Williams said a body embalmed soon after death will last much longer than an unpreserved body left in a cooler. She said she has taken measures to prevent using a typical Human Services casket, which unless sealed, is an exposed fibreboard, hinged box, which could leak into watersheds nearby.
"Especially one that is beyond being embalmed," she said. "It is not good for the environment. They go directly into the dirt."
Williams said John Thomas Memorial Chapel pays $60 in electricity daily per body, so the longer the wait, the more money John Thomas loses.
Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch said last week that his office was trying to expedite Collins' burial.
"The hospital released the body to a funeral home during the storm," Finch said. "We're trying to process that payment. But because we don't have a contract with them, we tried to find a way around that at our normal rate.
"It may not be what they want," Finch said.
Williams said the price - $1,220 per indigent burial - is not the problem.
"That check is not making me or breaking me," she said.
Williams added that the delayed response from Human Services has postponed attempts to have Collins' body buried honorably.
"They're cooperating, but very slowly," Williams said Tuesday afternoon, as she waited for a confirmation required to initiate the burial process. "I still have to get a burial date. I can't bury him without the paperwork.
An indigent burial permit is required before digging can begin on a plot that also must be approved by V.I. Public Works staff, Williams said.
That paperwork reached her fax machine at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, she said.
"I could get the burial permit the same day, probably," Williams said. "I was hoping to do that tomorrow."
Indigent burials are held in Eastern Cemetery.
She added that Collins' delayed burial marks a bigger problem: On St. Thomas, the funeral homes are required to bid annually on the indigent burial contract, but that contract has been held by Davis Funeral Home for far too long, she said.
"The government should set their own price," Williams said. "This way a dead human being goes to the grave like a dead human being with a name tag, not a price tag."
Davis said his business had won the indigent burial bid for the last four years in a row and he estimated the funeral handles more than 20 indigent burials annually.
Finch said to qualify for indigent burials, someone has to notify Human Services, and they must apply for assistance.
"Generally, people just come in and apply," Finch said. "We have to know who they are."
But indigent also refers to someone without documentation, someone who is by definition unknown. In those cases, Human Services must justify a need for such appropriations.
Davis said the indigent contract is not a money-maker.
"You don't make anything. We don't want to have more Human Services contracts," he said. "They're well below our break-even."
Davis said indigent burials receive the same services, but that the caskets differ from those typically bought.
"The casket is a little different," he said. "It's a contract bid casket. I'm not going to get into that. I don't believe it's anyone's concern who is not indigent. It might entice people."
Davis said complications such as Collins' are part of the universally thorny public funding process.
"When you go to the government, whatever it is, you have to go in with your hat in your hand and pray they had a good day," said Davis, who also is a veteran.
V.I. Office of Veterans Affairs director Morris Moorehead said Collins is, at the least, entitled to federal veterans burial benefits.
"He's entitled to a burial regardless of where he joined: a burial plot and a headstone and a flag," Moorehead said, admitting he had heard of Collins' case. "There's some confusion with the funeral home."
Moorehead called the territorial veteran's burial benefits, for which Collins does not qualify, "the most generous in the nation.
"Each state has different local benefits," Moorehead said.
In addition to the plot, headstone and flag, the most Collins could get would be about $300 for a funeral, Moorehead said.
Moorehead said John Thomas has refused to bury Collins.
Williams said she has not buried Collins because Human Services has not given her clear direction.
She said Human Services has asked three times for her to return the body, but she said the money lost on retrieving and storing Collins' body would have to be recouped beforehand.
"I would honor the same price that Davis gets," Williams said. "I would like to get this man a proper burial."
- Contact reporter Michael Todd at 774-8772 ext. 304 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.