When George Whelan died Jan. 25 at Boston Medical Center, at the age of 82, there was nobody to claim his body. He didn’t have a family. He didn’t have a home.
But he was an Army veteran, from the Korean War, and that still counts for something. Somebody from the city’s veteran services office placed a call to the Robert J. Lawler & Crosby funeral home in West Roxbury and Bill Lawler answered the phone.
Big Bob Lawler is dead nine years now, but when he turned the business over to his sons, Bob Jr. and Bill, he told them they had to keep volunteering to bury the poor and the homeless. The truth is, the sons would have kept doing it anyway, because they had watched their father do it since they were kids, and they are their father’s sons.
Big Bob Lawler started burying indigent veterans back in the 1950s. More than a half century later, his sons are still doing it.
If the vet has any family left, they head for the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, down the Cape. If there is no family, they head out to the Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon, in the middle of the state, up by the border with New Hampshire.
It’s 66 miles from the funeral home to the cemetery. Bill Lawler was headed north on I-95 the other day, but rather than head straight to Route 2, he jumped off near Waltham and turned onto Route 117.
“It’s Mr. Whelan’s last ride,” he said, almost to himself. “I’d like it to be more scenic, more peaceful for him.”
After picking up Whelan’s body at the hospital, Lawler perused the small packet of information that came with it. It showed that Whelan was from Dorchester, that he was living in a house in Savin Hill when he joined the Army in March of 1951. But after searching for the house, Lawler realized that address doesn’t exist anymore.
Some census information shows that Whelan had lived with his parents, George and Mary, and his sister, June, who was four years older than him. But that’s it.
“I think he spent some time at the Shattuck shelter,” Bill Lawler was saying, turning the hearse onto Route 2 at Emerson Hospital.
On the long drive, he tried to imagine the life of this man. George Whelan was 17 when he joined the Army. He was 20 when he was discharged, as a corporal.
He lived another 62 years before he died, surrounded by nurses and tubes but no one who really knew him.
The only constant in his life, the only thing that mattered in the end, was that he had served his country, honorably, and so when Bill Lawler pulled up to the side of the cemetery chapel in Winchendon, Claude Poirier was waiting for him.
Poirier, a Coast Guard vet, runs the cemetery, 210 acres of wooded, rolling hills.
“Every veteran is treated with dignity and respect here,” Poirier says.
Usually, the chapel is filled with family members. But on this day, there was no family. So Bill Lawler became the family, sitting in the front row, alone. He doubled as a proxy clergyman, rising to say a prayer after Poirier made some brief remarks, honoring George Whelan’s service.
A pair of young soldiers who seem impossibly young, Army Specialist Landny Khampaeng and Army Specialist Timothy Jackson, stood perfectly still at either end of the flag-draped casket.
Lawler spent some time looking for something appropriate to read at George Whelan’s funeral and he came across a poem by Margaret Schroeder called “Let Us Never Forget.”
“Let us never forget freedom,” he read,
“That treasured jewel rare.
“Or those who gave their lives for it
“That we might live without despair.
“Let us never forget honor
“Found in our flag of stripes and stars,
“And the majesty it holds
“Protecting us from oppression’s prison bars.
“Let us never lose hope
“Or let our patriotism sag,
“But let us look heavenward
“And rejoice in our flag.”
Through the chapel’s window, an honor guard appeared, four old veterans from American Legion posts in Athol and Orange, marching in cadence until they stopped, turned toward the chapel, shouldered their rifles and fired three volleys into the air.
As taps played, the two young soldiers who had been standing over Whelan’s casket removed the flag and Khampaeng began folding it in crisp, tight triangles. Jackson knelt down on one knee and handed the folded flag to Bill Lawler.
One of the four vets in the firing party, Charles “Rocky” Stone, came into the chapel and presented Lawler with a packet of three spent cartridges, one from each of the volleys. One is for duty. One is for honor. One is for country.
When the service was over, Poirier invited people to pay their final respects. Bobbie Newman, the wife of one of the veterans in the firing party, stood before the casket of a man she never met, so George Whelan would have one person to say goodbye to him.
In the backroom, Peter Newman, Rocky Stone, Ed Humphrey, and Mike Nawotny folded their uniforms. They are all Army, all Vietnam era, and they shook their heads at the thought of someone who served his country dying alone.
“I wouldn’t say he was forgotten,” Peter Newman said. “Because we remembered him. He’ll always be remembered here.”
Once homeless, Army Corporal George Whelan now resides in Section 4, Row I, Grave 483 of the veterans cemetery in Winchendon, in the arms of his brothers who were brothers in arms.