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Farewell to a Veteran

It was one of the most touching stories of 2015. When a former soldier called Ronnie Lee Toler died in the American state of Tennessee at the age of 66, his body was taken to a funeral home. But no-one claimed it – apparently all his friends and relatives had passed away or lost contact with him.

This meant that no-one was going to attend his funeral. But the funeral home mentioned Ronnie on its Facebook page, saying that they had tried hard to locate his family and drawn a blank. The story touched the hearts of many people. The funeral home had had the choice of cremation or burial and might easily have decided that cremation was the better and simpler thing to do.

But as the story spread, it was apparent that many people wanted to do more than feel sad and then get on with their lives – they decided to say farewell to Ronnie in style. The funeral home decided to bury the old soldier rather than cremate him. When the funeral was held, hundreds of people turned up, including fellow veterans and serving military in full uniform.

They held American flags and stood in silence, paying full honour and respect to someone who had served his country before falling on hard times. As one of the attendees said: “You don’t ever leave a soldier behind.” But the story isn’t just moving: it’s also thought-provoking. Do we in rich Western nations do enough for veterans and other old people? In the past, family life was much closer and people could expect to be live in the same house or be in close touch with their relatives until the day they died.

That is still the case in many countries, where family life is still strong. But in America, Britain and other western countries, family ties have weakened and family members often live far apart, even in separate countries or on separate continents. In the past, people feared old age because it meant illness and infirmity. Nowadays, modern medicine can help considerably with better health, but isolation and loneliness have become two of the biggest problems of old age instead.

Ronnie Toler’s story isn’t unique: many old people die and have no friends or relatives to arrange and attend their funerals or cremations. Maybe this problem can be blamed in part on the increasing importance of money in western life. People value money more and chase it harder than they did in the past. They want the good things that money can buy, like shiny electronic goods and exciting holidays. And as more people began to think and behave like this, it became harder to stand against the tide.

Time given to chasing material success is time that we don’t give to maintaining family ties. But money isn’t a magic road to happiness and as we chase it we can lose sight of other things.  Ronnie Toler’s story was a touching example of how people can reach out to mourn a stranger, but wouldn’t it have been better if he had had more support when he was still alive and not just after he passed away?

It’s a difficult question, because some old people – perhaps Ronnie was amongst them – are too proud and independent-minded to ask for help and companionship even if they secretly feel in need of it. There is a balance to be struck between being caring and being intrusive, and education is one way to strike it. If we can teach people to value family ties more and material success less, we might be able to improve the final days of more old people. For some, the thought of dying alone and unmourned can be one of the worst aspects of loneliness. Ronnie Toler has passed away and had a fitting funeral, but many others will die in the same situation  and be overlooked.