Investigator gives unclaimed veterans honorable burial

Associated Press
November 25, 2019 - 8:56 am
 Danny Theriot, the Terrebonne Coroner's Office chief investigator, holds a flag

Associated Press

By DAN COPPSTAFF, The Houma Courier

HOUMA, La. (AP) — Danny Theriot says he believes the bodies of unclaimed military veterans deserve better than a simple pauper burial.

The Terrebonne Coroner's Office chief investigator recalls such a burial he witnessed in 2008 at Halfway Cemetery in Gray that left an impression on him.

"First, the inmates were called out to the cemetery to dig a 6-foot hole with shovels," Theriot said. "The trustees took a bag with the body in it and placed it in the hole. It was a simple burial. This was back before unclaimed bodies were cremated. In this case it was an old lady. It broke my heart."

State law gives coroners custody of all unclaimed bodies. Pauper burials are used by the coroner to bury bodies that are unclaimed or belong to families who can't afford the costs of funeral arrangements.

"The law says we have to wait 30 days to do an extended search to find kinfolk," Theriot said. "We use all of our resources to find them. After those 30 days, we bury them."

When Theriot learned one of the unclaimed bodies he received belonged to a military veteran, he said he wanted to do something more respectful to honor him.

"I couldn't bury a veteran like that," Theriot said. "My daddy was a veteran, my son is a veteran and I'm a police officer."

Theriot said he was able to acquire a coffin donated by a local funeral home to provide the veteran with a dignified final resting place. After that, honoring the unclaimed military dead became a personal mission for him.

Theriot learned in 2015 about the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell, which is operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is one of four cemeteries across the state offering burial options for veterans, spouses and dependent children.

"I learned there was a place for them over there," he said. "I get their discharge papers, pick up a flag and get one of the funeral homes here to cremate them for them. I then bring them to Slidell, where they give them a full military-honored funeral with gun salutes. That's a more dignified way to do it."

Since 2015, Theriot said he has given four unclaimed bodies full military send-offs.

Billy Robbins, Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery director, praised Theriot for what he's done for deceased, unclaimed veterans.

"He cares about every one of them and we just appreciate how he takes care of them," Robbins said. "When the veteran is eligible to be buried at our cemetery, we schedule a burial for them. We contact the branch of service they served in and we get the honor guard to come out there. We can play taps and the honor guard folds the flag."

Instead of being unceremoniously placed into the ground surrounded by a handful of cemetery workers, the unclaimed vets are honored by the entire community, Robbins said.

"Even though they may not have family members represented, we don't want these veterans to be buried alone," Robbins said. "At most events we have 200 people in attendance."

Theriot said giving fallen vets an honorable farewell is the least he could do to honor their service. He's also working with the parish to improve burial conditions for unclaimed non-veterans.

"I want people in this parish to know that the unclaimed veterans are being taken care of by this coroner's office," he said. "I'm not trying to get recognition. The recognition goes to the ones who served. I feel for the unclaimed veterans. This is all for them. I become the next of kin to them. No one should be left behind."

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