A homeless navy veteran died in Ann Arbor last October.
No family members came forward to claim his body.
So for five months, the veteran’s body lay in the morgue.
Now, finally, thanks to a few friends who refused to give up, Lawrence Tucker’s body was laid to rest last week at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Michigan.
With the full honor guard, the three rifle volleys, and a bugler playing taps, the ceremony was everything Tucker is entitled to by law.
It’s a relief for Tucker’s friends, after the long months it took to get his body out of the morgue.
By that point, preparing the body for burial was all but pointless, says Muehlig Funeral Chapel manager Kevin Jacobi.
“Well, his body had broken down so much over five months. And decomposed. There wasn’t much we could do.”
Jacobi’s Chapel is part of the Dignity Memorial network, which offers free funeral services to homeless veterans.
He heard about Larry Tucker’s death, and his unclaimed body, from Leah Zeldes, an old girlfriend of Tucker’s.
"And I thought, that was pretty appalling," says Zeldes.
She was the one who discovered that no one had come forward to claim Tucker’s body, after he died of stroke complications at age 65, and homeless.
She was told his remains would soon be cremated and put in a common grave.
“Larry deserved better than that,” says Zeldes, “and also I knew he was a veteran, and (not dishonorably discharged) veterans are entitled to a burial in a national cemetery.”
His friends say Tucker was a creative, gentle, eccentric guy.
A videographer, he loved all things science fiction. He made quirky tapes about his alter-ego, a character called Uncle Albert.
When his mom got sick, Tucker stopped working.
After she died, the bank took the house.
Tucker’s marriage ended.
He was diagnosed as bipolar.
He lived in his van, then a tent, then finally worked as a grounds keeper at a motel until he had a stroke.
Still, knowing that Tucker served in the Navy during Vietnam, Zeldes figured getting him a funeral shouldn't be difficult.
Zeldes says she remembers thinking: “Ok, well, all I have to do is, like, call the VA and they’ll handle this. And that wasn’t the case at all."
Zeldes says the VA wouldn't cover mortuary services or getting his remains to the cemetery.
That stuff is expensive: about $5,000 that Zeldes just didn’t have.
So finally, in her frustration, Zeldes vented about it on Facebook.
A Navy friend saw the post, and put her in contact with Kevin Jacobi, the funeral home manager.
Jacobi says it’s tougher than you’d think, trying to get the word out about offering free services to homeless veterans.
“We knew how to cut through the red tape in order to take custody of his body so he could be buried, rather than cremated and placed in a grave with other homeless people,” says Jacobi.
Still, he says it took several more months to get custody of Tucker’s body and get it to the Great Lakes National Cemetery.
Father Michael Carr presided, leading about a dozen of Tucker’s friends through Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters…”
After the rifle shots rang out and the procession headed back to town, Jacobi says he worries this is happening all over the place: Homeless vets die, and nobody’s there to bury them.
“You know, how many homeless people have a file folder in the backpacks with their DD214 paper in it?”
I tell him I don’t know what that is.
“It’s the honorable discharge paper that you need to be buried in a national cemetery.”
With an estimated 4,200 homeless vets in Michigan, he may be right to be worried.