The headlines about our Air Force dumping the remains of at least 274 American troops in a landfill made me think of a small story here a few years back, but also about death and what we do after.
It was about a woman called Mary. She was homeless, unless you count the stairwell of the Tampa real estate appraisal office where she lived. People who worked nearby looked out for her. In 2007, a few days before Christmas, she died of a stroke. Dozens of people gathered for a memorial to her, even though they didn't know her last name or even her real first one.
Thinking of lonely paupers' graves, I asked the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office what happened to people like Mary if no kin came forward. The answer was a bit of a surprise.
In hundreds of such cases a year, they search extensively for relatives. A volunteer genealogy group takes them on. But if no one claims the body after 120 days, the cremated remains are taken out into the Gulf of Mexico by a local mortuary and scattered at sea. Longitude and latitude are dutifully recorded in case someday, someone wants to know.
And if they learn along the way that the person was a veteran, he or she gets the dignity of a burial at a military cemetery.
Pinellas County has similar programs for what they call the "unclaimed."
So even our homeless, nameless and alone, get more in the end than the fallen troops in the news this week.
According to the Washington Post, their families had agreed to allow the military to dispose of those partial remains in a dignified, respectful way. That they were dumped in a landfill in Virginia was concealed.
I kept thinking as I read it: This is not us. This is not what we do.
Of course what happens after death is as personal as personal gets, even when the death isn't ours. Maybe especially then.
We want funerals, celebrations of life or absolutely no fuss whatsoever, depending on who we are. We buy elaborate plots so people can visit and reflect, or expensive urns so we'll always be around.
And plenty of us think what's left behind doesn't matter. That was my father's philosophy. He hated the very idea of a funeral, wanted cremation and didn't much care about where things went after that, since he wouldn't be around for it. "After that" is for the rest of us, I finally figured out.
My father liked nothing better than being out on the water, so that's where we went. On a boat off the Keys, we carried his remains contained in a heavy plastic bag inside a fat cardboard box.
And no, I am not cheap. They offered pricey, fancy containers from a catalog to hold what they called his "cremains," and what a word that is, but no. He would have been appalled at an urn.
When we let what was inside the box into the water, it rushed out to sea on a current, like it couldn't wait. That is a thing you remember.
This week, I checked with the Medical Examiner's Office to see what happened to the woman they called Mary. Though they had found out her real name through fingerprints, no one came to claim her.
And so she was scattered at sea, what seems a respectful end and also the right thing to do.