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Complaint spurs military to change cremation policy

May 10, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon abruptly ordered changes Friday in the way it handles service members' remains after learning that one business used by the Air Force performs both human and animal cremations.

The Delaware facility maintains separate incinerators in different buildings for human remains and animal remains, said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. But the crematorium, in an industrial park, had one sign, which advertised pet cremation services.

Told of the situation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked for immediate changes, ordered a broad review and issued an apology to military families, Morrell said.

"Secretary Gates believes the site and signage are insensitive and entirely inappropriate to the dignified treatment of our fallen," Morrell said.

"We just think our heroes deserve to be treated better than that."

The issue was brought to Gates' attention after an officer who attended the cremation Friday morning of a friend killed in combat lodged a complaint.

"This appeared to this soldier that our fallen heroes were taken to a pet crematory," Morrell said, adding that there was no evidence that any human remains were mistreated.

But the complaint, sent by e-mail and accompanied by a photograph of the business, shot up the chain of command in the Pentagon.

The officer was concerned about "the way the facility looked -- he felt it was insensitive," said Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, the Army staff director. "His larger message is that we care in this profession about our fallen comrades."

The bodies of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Depending on family preferences, the military transports caskets bearing the remains to hometown funeral homes for burial or cremation at government expense.

The Air Force also has contracted since 2001 with two crematoriums in Delaware, officials said. One of them, Torbert Funeral Chapel, has its crematorium in the industrial park and handles both human and animal remains.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, the Air Force staff director, said officials did not know how many service members had been cremated at Torbert.

Officials from the funeral home did not return a call seeking comment late Friday. Bill Torbert, the company president, told the Associated Press that the sign advertising pet cremation services is displayed only on the building where animal remains are handled. There are no signs on the building where human remains are handled.

As part of military practice, all remains of troops being transported must be escorted by a military service member. But military officials said they were not certain Friday whether the remains cremated at the Dover facilities had military escorts.

Some funeral homes have crematoriums, whereas others send remains to off-site facilities, military officials said, adding that it is common for crematoriums not located within funeral homes to handle both human and animal remains.It also is common for facilities that handle both human and animal remains to advertise the pet services, but not human services, officials said.

Under new rules, cremations for service members will take place only at facilities at funeral homes, and not at facilities that also handle animal remains.

"This department will do everything it possibly can to adhere to the principle that the remains of all members of the armed services must be treated with the dignity and respect their sacrifice demands," Morrell said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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