For six months, the body of a 95-year-old U.S. Navy veteran of the Pacific War lay in the cold confines of Martha Jefferson Hospital’s morgue while officials struggled to find family to claim him.
On Monday Luther Elmer Payne will be buried in a donated grave inside a donated casket with a color guard and at least one grandchild to see him to rest, all thanks to American Legion Post 74, Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Troy and the Albemarle County police.
It’s a dignified ending to an undignified snafu that left Payne’s body chilling for half of the year.
“Him being in the morgue that long, we felt it just wasn’t right,” said Richard A. Severin, Post 74’s veterans’ claims officer. “He had served his country and to be in that situation just wasn’t right.”
It was a situation created by a curious confluence of rulings and laws and a lack of records.
Payne died Dec. 2 at Martha Jefferson Hospital. He had no immediate next-of-kin to pay for or authorize his burial. Because Payne died in the hospital under medical care, no death investigation was required. Under a 2013 ruling by then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, there was no requirement for Albemarle County to make arrangements.
Neither did state law allow individuals other than family to bury him.
That left two Beaver Dam church members, who had befriended him and acted on his behalf during his medical care, powerless after his death.
“We had been visiting him every day, talking with him and working with doctors, and all of sudden our authority wasn’t there after he died,” recalled church member Sandy Bingler. “We didn’t know what to do and there was nothing we could legally do.”
Essentially, Payne’s burial was put on hold until March, when the state legislature passed a law to allow individuals to provide for burial of unclaimed human remains. The law, which went into effect immediately, also allows for local law enforcement to search for next of kin.
Payne was born in 1918 and was 23 when World War II broke out. He told visitors he was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and that his wife and son were killed. But much of Payne’s service is a mystery: Although Navy service records were relatively unaffected by a fire that destroyed a St. Louis military archive in 1973, investigators could find no record of his service.
“He told us he served in the Navy but there wasn’t any proof,” said Emmett Carver, a Beaver Dam church member who befriended Payne when he lived in a local nursing home. “When we’d come to visit, he’d be slumped down and looking down and I’d snap to and salute and he’d perk right up. He told us he lost his first wife and son at Pearl Harbor.”
Proof of Payne’s service comes in a picture printed in a wartime publication of crewmembers aboard the USS Shangri-La, an Essex-class aircraft carrier commissioned in 1944 and a recipient of two battle stars for her participation in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater.
Although the Shangri-La was at Pearl Harbor before steaming to war in 1944, it was not in harbor when the Japanese attacked. Without military records, there’s no way to be sure that Payne’s story of being there for the attack or losing his family was accurate or if it was a confusion of events as his health dwindled.
The lack of service records also pre-empted Payne from being buried in a national cemetery at the federal government’s expense.
“The first plan was to bury him in Culpeper at the national cemetery, but we couldn’t prove he had served,” Severin said. “We had his Social Security number, but there was very limited information available even from the Social Security Administration. There just wasn’t much information available anywhere. But this man had served his country and this was no way to treat him. We had to do something, so we started contacting [Albemarle County] officials.”
Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford was among those contacted.
“I heard about the story and it interested me that he’d been in the morgue since December,” she said. “I told them I didn’t have the authority and I didn’t have the jurisdiction but I could certainly make a lot of phone calls to help get things done. I feel so bad that he laid there that long.”
With the new law giving local police the authority to check into Payne’s background, Lt. Todd Hopwood of the Albemarle County Police Department got on it. But the sailor left few tracks.
“I started with Google and used some of the programs we have that go through public records to try and track down information on him, but I understand why the hospital and others couldn’t find much information,” Hopwood said.
“Normally, there’s a plethora of information on any person, public information from former addresses and court records and real estate records that tell you where someone lived and who else lived there, but there just wasn’t much on him,” Hopwood recalled.
Hopwood said some of the information was confusing. There were indications Payne might have been married twice and that both wives had died before him. Records show he was married to Naoma Payne, who died in 2001.
There was an indication that he had a son who died at an early age, as well as a possibly adopted son, Michael Maxell Payne, who served in Vietnam and died in 2001.
The adopted son proved to be the connection. It led Hopwood to a granddaughter who lives in Virginia. She had not been in contact with Payne for years but had tried to find him after her father died.
“My grandfather loved to fish. Him, my dad and I would always go fishing,” Margaret Wheeler, Payne’s granddaughter, recalled. “He had the most amazing loud, wild, cackling laugh. He loved my dad and his wife … more than in anything in the world.”
Wheeler recalled that family history tells of Luther and Naoma adopting Michael after he was left on their doorstep while Luther was still in the military.
“After Luther got out of the military, they lived in Hartwood and he was a farmer,” she said.
While Hopwood was working his computer magic to track down Wheeler, Severin, Bingler and Carver were working to put together a suitable service for the veteran.
The church offered a plot in its cemetery and the opening and closing of the grave.
Hill & Wood Funeral Home offered to take care of the body and donated a casket.
The Legion plans to supply the honor guard.
“Everything just fell into place and people have been so generous,” Bingler said. “He was such a sweet man.”
“People have stepped up and said they would help, and it’s really come together,” Severin said. “It’s amazing how kind and generous they’ve been.”
“It worked out … the American Legion did a great job working for Mr. Payne and taking care of arranging for his burial,” Hopwood said. “I think it means a lot to all of us. Everyone should have someone with them on their last day.”