Post returns to military cemetery (landfill)

We may have an answer to the unspoken religious questions in a shocking story that broke about a month ago here inside the D.C. Beltway. Do you remember the pre-Veterans Day headlines in The Washington Post about the military remains — partial remains and body fragments — that were, well, taken out to a nearby landfill? Click here for a reminder of what went down.

At that time, I raised the following issue:

This is an emotional subject and one with heavily religious overtones — period.

Yet as I have read the Post reports, this question has kept popping into my head: Surely military officials would not do this when dealing with the bodies of Jewish or Muslim soldiers?

Why do I say this? Traditional believers in these faiths take very seriously the need to bury the body INTACT. … Have the bodies of Jewish and Muslim soldiers been mishandled?

Now, the Post is back, believe it or not, with yet another update and many readers are going to find this one just as shocking.

Yes, we’re talking about making a return trip to the landfill.

The Air Force dumped the incinerated partial remains of at least 274 American troops in a Virginia landfill, far more than the military had acknowledged, before halting the secretive practice three years ago, records show.

The landfill dumping was concealed from families who had authorized the military to dispose of the remains in a dignified and respectful manner, Air Force officials said. There are no plans, they said, to alert those families now.

Once again, the Post has raised zero religious questions about this practice. However, careful readers may have a hint as to why this very emotional angle has not emerged as a story, on its own merits.

Senior Air Force leaders said there was no intent to deceive. “Absolutely not,” said Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. …

Jones said the Air Force did not need to inform relatives of troops whose remains ended up in the landfill because they had signed forms stipulating that they did not wish to be notified if additional remains were identified. The forms authorized the military to make “appropriate disposition” of those subsequent remains.

Asked if the landfill was a dignified final resting place, Jones said: “The way we’re doing it today is much better.”

I would assume that any Jews and Muslims who were concerned about doctrines linked to intact burial (even the possibility of burying body parts found later with the previously buried body) would not have signed those forms approving the “appropriate disposition” of the remains without their involvement. In other words, I would assume these believers would not trust the state on such a sacred matter.

Perhaps readers are supposed to assume that there were no Jews or Muslims numbered among those whose remains were handled in such an insensitive manner. That may, in fact, be the case.

Still, I find it hard to believe that — unless I have missed it — these Post stories have not mentioned this religion angle. Thus, this latest story ends like this:

“It’s a moral thing,” said Jeff Jenkins, the manager of the King George landfill. “Someone killed overseas fighting for our country, I wouldn’t want them buried — any part of them — in the landfill.”

It’s a moral thing, in other words. It’s not a religious thing, no matter what is written in the laws and traditions of Judaism and Islam.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Hugh

    I think you are too hard on Jeff Jenkins, the landfill manager. I agree with what he is quoted as saying.

    Surely the basis of the “moral thing” is religious, even if not expressly stated.

  • tmatt

    Oh, I have no problems with anyone at the landfill.

    As you can tell, my post is about the lack of questions on these religious angles at the WPost.

  • sari

    I would assume that Muslim and Jewish soldiers’ remains were handled with the same disrespect.

    One problem with addressing the religious angle is the families’ ignorance of how their loved ones’ remains were handled (desecrated, really). Since they will not be contacted, they will remain ignorant and cannot comment on the circumstances. I am unfamiliar with Christian religious law–cannot separate what’s required from custom. If the body parts *must* be interred together, then the Air Force has breached religious law. If not, then they have committed a breach of trust, but there are no religious implications for the Christian soldier.

    Don’t most states and municipalities prohibit the disposal of human remains in landfills?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    It’s a side note, and far more journalism than religion, but today on my ride into work I saw the headline, “Discarded Soldier Remains Disgraceful”.

    That… could have been phrased better. Just making it “Discarding Of” would help a lot.


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