For several years, the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base cremated the unidentified body parts of fallen service members and disposed of the ashes in a southern Virginia landfill, Air Force officials confirmed to ABC News.
The mortuary carried out the practice from 2003 to 2008, but now has a policy of burying these kinds of remains at sea.
The mortuary at Dover processes all of America’s war dead returning to the U.S. from overseas war zones.
The disposal of unidentified cremated remains at the landfill was first reported by the Washington Post on its website Wednesday evening.
The cremations “only occurred in instances where the person authorized to direct disposition of remains opted for military disposition of any subsequent portions of remains,” according to Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Dorrian.
Subsequent remains refers to body part fragments of an individual that may have remained unidentified or were recovered after a funeral had already taken place.
Air Force officials acknowledge that the Air Force did not discuss the military disposition option in detail with the families of service members who gave their consent.
In those cases prior to June 2008 where families gave their consent for the military disposition of subsequent remains, Dorrian said “the Air Force would transfer the portions to a local funeral home where cremation was effected and the cremated remains were returned to Dover.”
From there, the cremated remains would be turned over to a contractor for “further incineration and disposition in accordance with medical disposition.”
“The common practice was that any residual matter remaining after incineration was disposed of by the contractor in a landfill, ” Dorrian said.
An Air Force official identified the landfill as being located in King George County in southern Virginia.
In Dec. 2008, the mortuary began its current policy of burying the ashes at sea after the then-mortuary director recommended it “to effect disposition as a more respectful and dignified process.”
Since then, the ashes have been placed in urns made of sea salt that dissolve in water.
The new information about the disposition of these remains comes on the heels of Tuesday’s acknowledgement by the Air Force of two instances where mortuary officials misplaced a body part and another where a Marine’s arm was sawed off so he could be buried in his uniform.
After a year long investigation, the Air Force disciplined three mortuary supervisors for their involvement in these incidents.