The Air Force confirmed today that as many as 274 sets of cremated partial remains were disposed of in a Virginia landfill, significantly more than had been originally acknowledged when the now-discontinued practice was first reported a month ago.
"We regret any additional grief the past practice may have caused," said Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services.
Jones briefed reporters after today's Washington Post article that detailed 274 instances prior to 2008 when the ashes of partial remains were disposed of in a southern Virginia landfill.
The Air Force Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware cremates any partial remains that might emerge after a family has taken possession of their loved one's body. Jones described the partial remains as usually consisting of small pieces of soft tissue or bone fragments. Families are provided with a form where they can choose to not be notified if such remains emerge and agree to the military disposing of such remains.
From 2003 to 2008, the mortuary would send additional partial remains to a funeral home that would then send them to a contractor for cremation. The ashes would then be disposed of in a southern Virginia landfill. When presented with the forms, families were not told that the disposition meant that the ashes would ultimately be sent to a landfill.
In June 2008, the new head of the mortuary reviewed the practices at Dover and concluded that disposing cremated partial remains at sea was a more fitting option. The "retirement at sea" has since become standard practice for the mortuary.
Asked if the practice prior to 2008 was disrespectful, Jones answered, "It is certainly not the way we would have done it. Looking back, that's why in 2008 when we saw that practice we changed that practice."
Jones said 14 urns containing the ashes of partial remains have been taken out to sea aboard a Navy ship for "retirement at sea." The urns are made of salt so they will dissolve in water. After the briefing, Jones said the 14 urns were all taken out to sea in January 2011 in a group retirement at sea.
The Air Force has established a hotline since the practices at the Dover Mortuary have been in the news. So far, it has received nine calls and only one that dealt specifically with the issue of the ashes being placed at the landfill. The number is 1-855-637-2583, or questions can be sent via e-mail to email@example.com.