Married couple reunites in the grave

50 years of separation ends
February 14, 2023 at 5:35 p.m.
Helen Luke's ashes sit on a table above her husband Orville's gravesite. The Missing in America Project reunited the couple after Helen's ashes sat in funeral home storage for more than 30 years.
Helen Luke's ashes sit on a table above her husband Orville's gravesite. The Missing in America Project reunited the couple after Helen's ashes sat in funeral home storage for more than 30 years. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

For many couples, the classic wedding vow "Until death do us part" is literal. For Orville and Helen Luke, it's not quite accurate.

On Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, the American Legion Post 7 escorted the ashes of Helen to her husband Orville's resting site at Bayview Cemetery. Because Orville was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, the Legion honored him with a 21 Gun Salute and folded a flag at his open grave with Helen's ashes sitting close by.

photo  The American Legion Post 7 honor guard stands at attention during Orville and Helen Luke's reburial service. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

After more than 50 years apart, the couple rests together again in the rolling hills of the Bellingham cemetery.

The Bellingham couple married in their 40s in Bellingham. In 1972, Orville suffered a stroke and died at St. Joseph's Hospital. Helen lived until 1990 and was cremated at Jerns Funeral Home. However, no one came to pick up her remains, so she sat in storage for 32 years.

Jerns Funeral Home Director Brad Bytnar said it's common that remains are left unclaimed in funeral homes. Jerns has remains from as far back as the 1960s.

These days, next of kin have 90 days to retrieve the remains, according to Washington state law. In the past, however, those laws were not in place, so many funeral homes are stuck with remains dating back decades that have no living family to claim them. Thus, they sit in storage, interred at a funeral home.

Bytnar said he was happy to have Helen's ashes reunited through the help of the Missing in America Project. The national organization seeks to locate, identify and inter the unclaimed remains of American veterans, their spouses and minor children.

photo  Jim deLucia from Missing in America carries Helen Luke's ashes to the grave site at Bayview Cemetery. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Jim deLucia — a veteran and a researcher with the Whatcom Genealogical Society — volunteers with the project and reunited Helen and Orville. DeLucia said he works with funeral homes to get names of stored remains and uses Google, death and marriage records, draft cards and other relevant documentation to find their histories and families. When he confirms the identity of a veteran or a veteran's family member, he works to find family members to privately bury them or inters them at Tahoma National Cemetery or Medical Lake in Spokane.

In the decade the organization has been around, just a handful of volunteers have recovered 760 remains in Washington state and thousands more nationwide, deLucia said. The project runs on donations to fund document fees, burial fees and other costs related to research. 

photo  American Legion members on motorcycles escort Helen Luke's ashes to the gravesite of her husband Orville. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

After confirming the identities of Helen and Orville, deLucia reached out to the American Legion Post 7 in Bellingham for help interring the remains together. The local Legion members paid more than $800 in fees to have Orville's gravesite reopened and Helen's ashes added. More than two dozen members showed up for the reunification of the couple. 

"The American Legion is all about veterans, their family, their spouses," Commander Rick Sucee said. "When we heard this story, it didn’t seem right that we had a World War II and Korean veteran buried without his wife."

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