You’ve heard about this: The US Air Force, at Dover, has incinerated “partial remains” of nearly 300 American troops, and had the ashes carted off with medical waste to the landfill. If you have heard of this, you’ve also heard the indignation, the loathing, the accusations of inhumanity, and the verbal rending of cloth. If you have been observing this, have you also noticed how everybody has it wrong?
I will probably get in huge trouble for this blog post. But, so it goes. But do have the sense before you attempt to tear me a new one that I do have a set of valid questions, and a rational argument, and that I’m perfectly happy to understand that people can be wrong about this much like how they can be wrong about going to church on Sunday or praying for a better life or buying a lottery ticket. I don’t expect people to make sense in everything they do.
It is hard to tell exactly what has happened from the news reports so far. To establish some perspective, I’d like to lay out the following possibilities:
1) The body of a US soldier, found dead on the battle field, is brought to Dover along with the other bodies collected around that time. This particular body is then incinerated without checking with the family first, and the ashes are dumped in with other incinerated medical waste. The collection of ashes is then shipped off to whatever facility is used to dispose of this sort of waste.
2) An ear, or something that might be an ear, probably but not necessarily of a human, all burned up, is found among the dead and wounded at a battle site in Afghanistan. It is put in a bag which is in turn stashed in a body bag with a mostly but not entirely complete body of a soldier. The whole mess is shipped back to Dover. All of the remains that came in that day are sorted out. Most are just bodies, or at least, 90% or so of a body, and they are identified. There are a few other body parts; A hand here, a foot there, and they are matched up with the mostly whole bodies and stored with them. Those remains will be sent to the families. But when that is all done, there is still this thing that may or may not be a human ear, and maybe a few other bits. Those bits are put in with the medical waste and incinerated, the ashes shipped off to the usual facility.
3) Something, you tell me, in between scenarios 1 and 2.
Scenario number 1 did not happen. There were no “bodies” per se incinerated and sent to the dump. Nobody’s son or daughter’s body was mixed in with medical trash. Scenario number 3 almost certainly happened. The personnel at Dover did what they could, and there were some bits left that could not be further sorted out to any reasonable degree of accuracy.
If that is true, that is bad. But not that bad. The normal procedure should probably be to put all the human-like parts which may or may not be human in some place where you can say later that you did something special with them. In a hole at a military cometary, labeled “Grave of the various bits and pieces” or words to that effect. Perhaps saying it in Latin will make it seem less like what it is: A futile effort to impose one of a subset of burial traditions on what might be a fragment of a ferret or might be a misidentified burned up mushroom or might be a part of an actual soldier, but not even clearly of one nation’s army or another’s, let alone of a particular named individual.
There have been times in war where large numbers of bodies were left on the battlefield to rot. Bodies have been bulldozed into big holes and later randomly distributed among smaller graves on which markers are placed, giving the impression that individuals were sorted out. There have been bodies buried under a grave stone, labeled correctly to match the body, but where this or that body part is actually from some other body, which in turn is also buried with a part or two missing or replaced with a bit from another corpse. And so on.
In one report on this story, we hear the following:
The Air Force said it first cremated the remains and then included those ashes in larger loads of mortuary medical waste that were burned in an incinerator and taken to a landfill. Incinerating medical waste is a common disposal practice but including cremated human ashes is not, according to funeral home directors, regulators and waste haulers.
Oh really? Funeral directors in the united states don’t send their miscellaneous body parts they end up with at the end of the day off in the trash? Could that be because they generally handle one body at a time, and most funeral directors will go an entire career without having to worry about matching battlefield remains with ID tags? Are waste haulers really experts on this? Regulators? Regulators of what?
I have no problem with saying that the Air Force has been doing it wrong, but I am very unimpressed by the indignation and rending of cloth that typically goes along with this story. Listen: Our sons and daughters have been getting blown to bits, along with their Iraqi and Afghan allies and enemies, for years now. Be indignant about that. Not about some burned up piece of tissue that may or may not be someone’s ear lobe. Or a mushroom.
In the end, the Air Force will start to dump the incinerated remains of the orts and bits into the sea instead of into an approved landfill. I wonder what the “Regulators” think of that?