Military considering new cremation policies

May 9, 2008 5:58:51 PM PDT
The Pentagon is recommending changes in the handling of troops' remains, after it was revealed that a crematorium contracted by the military handles both human and animal cremations. A military official said there have been no instances or charges that human and pet remains were mixed. But officials are now recommending that troops' remains be incinerated only at facilities that are dedicated entirely to humans, in order to avoid any appearance of a problem. Or, officials said, families can opt to have a relative's remains sent to a local funeral home for cremation, which would be paid for by the military.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed the earlier situation was "insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

"Our heroes deserve to be better treated than that," Morrell said, adding that a sign at one of the crematoriums noted that it also does pet cremations. He said Gates offered an apology to military families for the insensitivity.

Morrell said there is "absolutely no evidence whatsoever at this point that any human remains were at all ever mistreated, or ever not cremated where they were supposed to be cremated. That said, the secretary believes that is it inappropriate, even if permissible under the rules and regulations, to cremate our fallen, our heroes, in a facility that also cremates pets."

The Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary, where all troops' remains arrive from the battlefield, does not have its own crematorium, so it contracts with two funeral homes for the cremations: Torbert Funeral Chapel and Pippens Funeral Home.

Pippens' crematorium is located at the funeral home and is used only for human remains, while Torbert's has incinerators for both human and animal remains.

While most facilities don't advertise the fact that they handle both human and animal remains, there is a sign near the Torbert crematory advertising the "Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service."

Officials said there are three incinerators at the Torbert facility, and two are used for humans, while one is used for pets.

The human and pet facilities are separated by about 20 feet.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, Air Force staff director, told Pentagon reporters that it is not uncommon for crematoriums to provide both services.

Klotz said the issue came to light Friday when an officer who works in the Pentagon went to Dover to pay respects to a fallen comrade who was being cremated. The soldier noticed the pet cremations sign, and was concerned about the fact that the facility handled both human and animal remains.

The officer alerted senior officials at the Pentagon, who notified Capitol Hill and quickly pulled together the policy changes. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, sent a letter to Gates calling the report "very disturbing."

Bill Torbert, president of Torbert Funeral Chapel, said a representative from Dover Air Force Base visited a crematory run by his company earlier this week, but was satisfied there was nothing amiss.

Torbert said the human and pet crematories are in adjoining buildings on the same property but have separate entrances. A sign advertising pet cremation services is in front of the Friends Forever office, but there are no signs on the building housing the human crematory facilities, which Torbert said are not used for cremation of pets.

"We do a lot of work with the military," he said. "We service them very well."

Gates has directed David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel, to conduct a review of Defense Department policies and practices governing the cremation and handling of remains of service members.

To date, Dover's port mortuary has processed 4,608 remains, but the Pentagon was not immediately able to say how many of those were cremations, and how many were handled by either Pippens or Torbert rather than service members' hometown facilities. Lt. Chris Sukach, spokeswoman for the Dover base, had no immediate comment and referred questions to Pentagon officials.

Klotz said the military has used the two Delaware facilities since about 2001, and neither one, on its own, can meet the Pentagon's needs in the time required. He said he plans to go to Dover on Saturday to speak with officials about the matter.

Associated Press Writer Randall Chase contributed to this report from Dover, Del.