Five months after Korean War veteran Donald Lyon’s life ended, his remains sit in storage at a Belfast crematory, waiting for someone to pay his final debt.

“I don’t have the money to bury him,” said friend Roy Richeson of Rumford, who helped care for the man he thought of as a grandfather. “I loved the man to death, but I have five kids.”

And Richeson figures he shouldn’t have to pay.

“Donald was a decorated soldier,” he said. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent thousands of dollars last September to treat Lyon as his health failed. Richeson believes it ought to spend the hundreds needed to bury the veteran with respect.

But Lyon has fallen through a crack in the system, said Peter Ogden, director of Maine Veterans’ Services.

“We want to get him buried in a timely way, with honor,” Ogden said Wednesday. “It’s a shame it has taken so long.”

Ogden believes it may take an act of the Maine Legislature to finally put Lyon to rest.

He is working with lawmakers in hope of creating a public advocate to help bury Maine’s honored dead, lest the same happen to any more veterans. Eventually, money will have to be spent by someone, perhaps individual towns.

VA burial benefits are fairly concrete.

If someone served in the military in a war, they receive $300 toward their funeral expenses and $300 more toward burial. If their death is the result of a wartime injury, the benefit climbs to $2,000.

The VA has promised to pay $300 of Lyon’s funeral bill at Direct Cremation of Maine. The total bill is $1,150. That leaves about $850 to be paid before the crematory will release Lyon’s remains.

“I can bury him in one of our cemeteries for free,” said Ogden, who oversees Maine’s four state-run Veterans’ cemeteries. “But we need his remains.”

Lyon, who was 78 at the time of his death, was unmarried and had no children, friends said. Officials have been searching for relatives of Lyon for months without success.

He also had few assets.

He typically lived with friends. He stayed on couches or slept in campers, said Beverly Webster, a friend from Auburn.

“He was an eccentric,” Webster said. He loved cats, often spending much of his income on cat food, she said.

But his service to the country was a certainty. While in Korea, he earned a Purple Heart, Ogden said.

“He was the only survivor of his bunker,” Webster said. For the remainder of his life, he suffered the effects of the metal that passed through his body in a killer explosion. 

Richeson said that Lyon had steel plates in his head and sometimes complained of pain.

He died on Sept. 14 of complications from a brain tumor, Webster said.

After Lyon’s death, Webster and Richeson were surprised when his death benefit failed to cover their friend’s simple arrangements.

When they learned there was an outstanding bill, they asked for help from Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office.

Her staffers sought help from Ogden, who says he is still looking for a solution.

“This shouldn’t have to happen,” he said.

But it’s not unique.

Last year, after a veteran died in an Augusta hotel, Ogden’s office spent about two months searching for relatives before finding a half-sister in Florida.

“It’s very hard to help a single person,” he said.

There are solutions, especially if veterans plan ahead. They can give someone power of attorney to make monetary decisions, diverting any last income to pay expenses.

If Odgen’s idea of a public advocate finds support, he might be able to prevent other veterans’ burials from being delayed, he said.

“No one should sit on a shelf,” he said.

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.