"It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment."
--C. Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001On November 9, about a month ago, Christopher Hitchens' elegant statement about burning bodies and failed experiments was revealed to be not just figuratively powerful, but literally true. That was the day we learned that the nation's main military mortuary at Dover AFB had been incinerating dead soldiers (or parts of them) from Iraq and Afghanistan and tossing the remains into a Virginia dump. The King George County Landfill, specifically.
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.
Air Force officials said they do not know when the landfill disposals began. They said their first record of it is Feb. 23, 2004. The mortuary database became operational in late 2003.
The revelation of the process had predictable impact:
Gari-Lynn Smith, portions of whose husband’s remains were disposed of in the landfill after his 2006 death in Iraq, said she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way the Air Force had acted. She learned of the landfill disposal earlier this spring in a letter from a senior official at the Dover mortuary.
“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor,” Smith said. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”
After four years of letters, phone calls and records requests, she received a letter from the mortuary in April stating that the military cremated and incinerated those partial remains and disposed of them in the King George landfill.
“I hope this information brings some comfort to you during your time of loss,” read the letter, signed by Dean.