Lack of Family Delays 95-Year-Old Veteran's Burial for Six Months

A U.S. Navy veteran whose body lay in a hospital morgue for six months after he died at age 95 will finally be buried Monday.

Luther Payne, who served in the Pacific during World War II, had no immediate family to claim his body after he died Dec. 2, 2013 in Virginia, the Daily Progress reported.

Payne had told visitors he was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and lost his wife and son when the Japanese attacked, but service records were unable to corroborate that. Officials are unsure whether his account was accurate or he became confused as his health declined.

An overall lack of records prevented Payne's burial in a national cemetery, and state law didn't allow individuals other than family to bury him. Two members of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Troy had befriended him and had acted on his behalf during his medical care, but were rendered legally powerless after he died.

 So Payne's body remained in the morgue of the Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville for months. In March, the General Assembly approved a new law that allows individuals to provide for the burial of unclaimed human remains.

The new law also allowed law enforcement to search for next of kin.

"We had his Social Security number, but there was very limited information available even from the Social Security Administration," Richard A. Severin, Post 74's veterans' claims officer, told the Daily Progress. "There just wasn't much information available anywhere. But this man had served his country and this was no way to treat him. We had to do something, so we started contacting officials."

The Albemarle County Police Department began to research, and eventually located Payne's granddaughter.

The granddaughter, Margaret Wheeler, had attempted to find him after her father died, but hadn't been able to.

She recalled her grandfather as having "the most amazing loud, wild, cackling laugh. He loved my dad and his wife... more than in anything in the world," the Progress reported.

The Beaver Dam Baptist Church donated a plot in its cemetery for Payne's burial, and a funeral home donated the casket. Payne will be laid to rest on Monday, with a color guard and his granddaughter in attendance.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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