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Time Makes No Difference

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 child.

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.