SEATTLE—James Lindley descended the basement stairs of the Columbia Funeral Home, took off his plaid shirt and changed into a black suit and tie.
He leaned into a mirror and checked the precise part in his dirty-blond hair under the light of a bare bulb. He knotted his tie in a double Windsor, replicating the symmetry his drill sergeant demanded in Marine Corps boot camp.
The face staring back wore the pallor of a man who spends most days in a windowless room, embalming corpses.
Black plastic urns were stacked on a table nearby. Each contained the ashes of a military veteran. Abandoned by families, ignored by bureaucracy, these men had been on a shelf for years before they landed here awaiting their last rites.
Mr. Lindley poured the remains of a Marine, a sailor and two soldiers into polished brass urns engraved with their names.
Then Mr. Lindley, a 34-year-old mortician, headed back upstairs to perform a duty he imposed upon himself: making sure the unclaimed remains of dozens of indigent King County veterans are laid to rest at Tahoma National Cemetery with military honors they earned as young men and a dignity that eluded them at life’s end.
“I do what I can,” Mr. Lindley said, “which is take care of them when they’ve passed, when nobody else is there to do it.”
Mr. Lindley’s mission began with Terry Stewart, a Korean War Marine whose remains had been at the Medical Examiner’s office since 2013. The county waited for a local funeral home to secure approval for a military interment. Months passed, then years.
Last summer, the county contacted Mr. Lindley, who broke through the bureaucratic roadblocks. In just over a week, he arranged a military funeral.
After that success, Mr. Lindley decided he would take on the processing of every indigent veteran in the county, a time-consuming, money-losing effort for him and his employer.
Each year, some 250 people die in King County without money or family, some after years in nursing homes, some after years on the street. The Medical Examiner’s Office searches for relatives, then waits as long as two years for someone to claim the body or ashes.
If no one steps forward, the remains go to a mass grave. Indigent veterans are an exception. When the Medical Examiner’s Office receives a body, the agency’s investigators search for clues of military service—a veteran’s ID card or a war story shared with another homeless person. Those remains are set aside.
Over the years, dozens of urns with the ashes of unclaimed veterans accumulated at the Medical Examiner’s Office and at a private funeral home that for a while had agreed to have them interred. Over the summer, 32 black-plastic urns were moved to the basement of the Columbia Funeral Home.
With Mr. Lindley accepting this mission, the county medical examiner no longer cremates suspected veterans. Instead, they turn over the bodies for burial in caskets paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Working with the VA, the Medical Examiner’s Office and the military-records depot, Mr. Lindley investigates whether the deceased served in the military and earned an honorable discharge.
Once the VA confirms a veteran’s eligibility, Mr. Lindley schedules a military funeral and arranges for mourners.
“They’re veterans,” he told a woman at the National Cemetery Administration during a phone call this fall. He read the names of an 81-year-old veteran who died in 2010 and a 70-year-old who died in 2007.
“We don’t want them to go in a mass grave,” he said.
At the end of September, Mr. Lindley interred four men who had died in 2014. Army veteran Ricky Fesler, 62 years old, had been addicted to heroin and often lived on the streets, VA records show. Roger Alvear, a 63-year-old Vietnam Marine, changed his name to Rocky Stallone and was a drinker who suffered violent outbursts during combat flashbacks.
Army veteran Russell Ristow, age 69, had a friend care for him as he succumbed to cancer. Sailor Wayne Roberts, 76, believed his parents had hidden his adoption from him, VA records show. He said he drank to “quiet his sense of sadness and loneliness,” according to the records.
In a funeral viewing room, Mr. Lindley and a colleague folded four U.S. flags into crisp red-white-and-blue triangles. They loaded Messrs. Fesler, Stallone, Ristow and Roberts into a black Cadillac limousine for the ride to Tahoma.
They drove past Vietnamese clinics, Ethiopian restaurants and halal minimarts. The ethnic mix of the neighborhood makes Mr. Lindley uncomfortable, he said, so he rarely strays far from the funeral home on foot. Too many faces remind him of his own military service in the Middle East.
At Tahoma cemetery, a retired sailor checked the precision of the folded flags. “Not my first rodeo,” Mr. Lindley assured him.
Mr. Lindley had buried his own grandfather, J.C. Tinney, at Tahoma last summer. The Tinneys raised him, he said, after his parents disappeared from his life in a cloud of drugs.
His grandfather had been a Marine in Vietnam. Mr. Tinney didn’t talk about his combat experiences until he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while in his 70s. After high school, Mr. Lindley, too, joined the Marine Corps.
In early 2003, he was among the U.S. forces gathered in the Kuwaiti desert awaiting orders to invade Iraq. Mr. Lindley, a communications specialist, was stationed at an air base where loudspeakers blared gas-attack warnings. The Marines were told they had just nine seconds to don their gas masks in the event of a real attack.
Mr. Lindley recalls that during one drill or false alarm, he discovered one of his men hiding in a cot in a panic, unable to find his mask and trying to inject himself with an antidote to nerve agents. Mr. Lindley found the atmosphere of dread and uncertainty overwhelming.
When his squadron moved north into Iraq, Mr. Lindley remained behind on guard duty. It gnawed at him that his comrades were risking their lives in combat while he was relatively safe in Kuwait.
“I feel guilty because there’s a lot of Marines who saw combat, saw their friends die, things that are very, very traumatic,” he said.
As his enlistment ended in 2004, Mr. Lindley found himself in a spot similar to his grandfather’s—hurt by his war experience and unable to talk about it.
Mr. Lindley slipped into depression. He didn’t leave the house for a month. He stopped going to restaurants. He stopped going to movies and supermarkets. He stopped inviting people into his home. He let high-school friendships wither. His first marriage fell apart, and he lost contact with his son.
Mr. Lindley tried a VA treatment that involved recording himself talking about his experiences. He found it too difficult to listen to his own memories.
“The nature of my trauma boils down to just the fear of dying,” he said.
Many combat veterans acquire PTSD from seeing too much action; Mr. Lindley saw very little. He suffered, in part, from the guilt of knowing others faced death while he remained safe.
The VA eventually declared him 70% disabled from PTSD, cognitive disorder and depression.
In 2010, he married Tana, a patient woman with two children and a willingness to share a confined life. They moved into a small house in Pacific, Wash.
Mr. Lindley experiences night sweats and anguished dreams of combat. Mrs. Lindley avoids waking him. If she does, she said, “the look on his face is he’s ready to go to war.”
Following his discharge from the Marines, Mr. Lindley worked as a technician for burglar and fire alarms. The next year, a pastor told him about a job at a funeral home, and Mr. Lindley discovered his calling.
These days, he arrives at Columbia by 7 a.m., walks past the hearse and through the casket showroom, gleaming with polished cherry and mahogany. He hangs a U.S. flag from the front porch.
On embalming days, he carefully lines up his instruments on a white towel spread on a stainless-steel cart: scissors, needles, forceps, hemostat clamps, aneurysm hooks.
He removes a body from the refrigerator, checking the name on the ankle tag. He elevates the cadaver on blocks, bathes it and glues or stitches the eyes and mouth closed. He shaves stubble from men’s faces and adds rouge to women’s.
He opens the femoral artery at the groin and injects embalming fluid, drawing excess out of the jugular vein.
The solitary ritual of embalming a body calms him.
“It’s an environment where I have total control of everything that is happening,” Mr. Lindley said. “I really don’t understand why I need to be in control. It makes me feel very peaceful. It’s a happy, quiet place for me.”
The formaldehyde burns his lungs and waters his eyes. Yet Mr. Lindley refuses to wear a respirator. He tried it and found it triggered memories of gas masks and the claustrophobic fear of dying.
That delicate equilibrium—unease in the world, serenity in the embalming room—was upended early last year.
Mr. Lindley’s one friendship was with Stephen Scattareggia, a buddy from his Marine squadron who moved to Arizona after the service. The men spent hours playing online videogames and talking over their headsets.
“We were in each other’s ear every day of our lives since the Marine Corps,” Mr. Lindley said. “He was like my brother.”
Mr. Scattareggia was going through a divorce, and struggling to hang onto a good job, Mr. Lindley said. They discussed the possibility that Mr. Scattareggia would move to Seattle. Mr. Lindley didn’t realize his friend was desperate.
In January, Mr. Scattareggia pulled his Nissan into a dirt lot in Surprise, Ariz., put a rifle to his head and pulled the trigger, police said.
The news sent Mr. Lindley into a tailspin of guilt and remorse. “I couldn’t be there to help him,” he said.
His friend’s suicide became an unexpected turning point. Shortly after, Mr. Lindley began caring for deceased veterans and shedding some of the guilt he had carried for more than a decade.
“Every time I’m helping one of these guys,” he said, “it’s like I was helping my buddy.”
At Tahoma, a military guard awaited Mr. Lindley’s arrival at a ceremonial shelter: two Army soldiers, two Marines, two sailors and two airmen, a pair for each deceased veteran.
Bob Walker, a volunteer from Elks Lodge 2143, conducted a brief service. “One by one,” he said, “our comrades leave us.”
A rifle team fired three rounds.
The flag teams unfurled, then refolded, the flags. There were no family members present, so Mr. Lindley had arranged for strangers, including staff from the Medical Examiner’s Office, to receive the folded flags.
A Marine in dress blues knelt before Bill Barbour, a county medicolegal investigator, and presented him with Mr. Stallone’s flag. The Marine expressed thanks “on behalf of the president of the United States, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation.”
Retired teacher Bernie Moskowitz, an Army veteran in a maroon beret and well-shined black boots, blew taps on a well-shined bugle. “There’s no one here for them,” Mr. Moskowitz said. “We’re here for them.”
Mr. Lindley stood by the hearse, holding a stiff salute.
Later, Mr. Lindley drove to Tahoma’s columbarium, walls of vaults behind a stand of maples with leaves tinged an autumn-red. A technician unscrewed four face plates and slipped the veterans’ urns inside.
The staff checked and rechecked to make sure each veteran was in the right niche, matching the names on adjacent vaults to cemetery records.
“This is where they belong,” Mr. Lindley said. “This is where their brothers and sisters are.”
Afterward, Mr. Lindley visited his grandfather’s granite headstone. In a corner of his mind lurked a fear that, one day, he would be one of those vets who dies alone, unable to cope with life after wartime.
If that happens, he said, he hopes some mortician will make sure he is laid to rest at Tahoma.
“I wouldn’t want to be forgotten about,” Mr. Lindley said. “That’s a terrible thing to think about, that I might be forgotten.
Me Here......SALUTE Sir! You are doing the right thing for our abandoned deceased Veterans.