Many things cease to matter when enough time has gone by.
The justice system won’t pursue some crimes if they were committed a long time
ago. But that doesn’t apply to murder. Whether the crime happened last week or
fifty years ago, if someone can be proved guilty of murder, they will go to
prison. And if a victim’s body is uncovered in a garden or under a house, it
isn’t treated in a casual or disrespectful way, no matter how long it has been
there. It will be buried again in the proper way at a funeral.
The family will want to be there to pay their last respects,
even if they never knew the victim in life. We feel as though we owe something
to the dead and that families ties aren’t broken just because someone has
passed away. You don’t have to believe in an afterlife to feel like this, but
it’s usually religious ideas that inspire the most elaborate funerals and
tombs. Either way, death is one of the most important things in life.
All these things have been proved again by a funeral this
month in Hawaii. A sailor called Vernon Luke was buried in a veterans’ cemetery
on the island of Honolulu. But he didn’t die this month, this year or even this
century. In fact, he died almost 75 years ago during the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor. On December 7th 1941, he was on board his battleship, the USS
Oklahoma, when planes appeared overhead and bombs began to fall. Did he have
time to realize what was going on? Perhaps not. The attack was a complete
surprise, killing thousands of men in a few minutes. Warships were burning and
sinking. When the bodies of the dead were retrieved, it was possible to
identify only a minority of them.
That’s why Vernon Luke was buried as an “unknown sailor”
with hundreds of his equally unknown comrades. And it seemed as though their
bodies would stay in a military cemetery, honoured but for ever unidentified.
In those days, the first secrets of DNA hadn’t been unlocked. Scientists didn’t
know in the 1940s that every human cell carried a kind of genetic fingerprint,
identifying both unique individuals and their family relations. By the turn of
the twentieth century, that had changed. DNA analysis of a drop of blood or
flake of skin can prove the guilt of a criminal or the true parentage of a
This means that the unknown soldiers, sailors and airmen of
the Second World War can now begin to be identified using DNA samples from
their relatives. Because the attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the most
important events in American history, the US military particularly wants to
identify the presently unknown servicemen who died there. The remains of Luke
Vernon were disinterred and, despite the many decades that had passed, his DNA
revealed his identity.
Now he could be re-buried with full military honours. The
funeral was attended both by members of his family and by a military veteran,
Ray Emory, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and who has campaigned for
the US military to identify unknown servicemen. Ray Emory is 94 now and left
the navy long ago, but time has never eroded his desire to see his old comrades
given proper burials and proper respect.