Funeral homes: Bill Henry still wants your ashes.
He's put about 2,800 miles on his 2010 Victory Cross Country this spring and summer, hunting veterans' cremains at three funeral homes in York, four in Grand Island, four more in North Platte.
"They ought to rename I-80 'Bill Henry 80,'" he says. "I have basically hit every funeral home close to I-80 from Lincoln to Ogallala."
Henry, a Vietnam War veteran, wants to recover the unclaimed ashes of Nebraska veterans who died alone and connect them with next of kin when possible, or arrange a military funeral when it isn't.
He figured a bill lawmakers passed in March — intended to eliminate liability for funeral homes when they work with groups like Henry's — would have helped.
So far, it hasn't much.
"The funeral homes are still holding them," Henry, who lives in Papillion, said last week.
His group, Nebraska's Missing in America Project, has helped deliver cremains of 19 veterans to their next of kin or a final resting place, and plans to take two more to Fort McPherson National Cemetery later this month. But Henry believes hundreds of veterans' cremains are still out there.
The new law, sponsored by state Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, allows funeral homes and crematoriums to work with VA-affiliated groups like the Missing in America Project to identify unclaimed ashes of veterans or spouses, then turn them over if they qualify for interment in a veterans' cemetery.
It wasn't illegal before, but Crawford's bill helps keep those involved from getting sued if distant family turns up later.
Some funeral directors are still reviewing the new law, Henry said.
"I ran into quite a few funeral homes that they didn't even know about it."
Others just say no — even after admitting they're storing cremains Henry's group might want. They don't always explain why.
"You know how Nebraskans are," Henry said.
Similar groups have encountered the same challenges in other states, even those with laws similar to Nebraska's.
"Maybe there's a way we can work with him a little more," said Jon Reichmuth, who owns Reichmuth Funeral Homes in the Omaha area and is a past president of the Nebraska Funeral Directors Association.
Reichmuth was one of the first funeral directors to work with Henry's group, and he testified in favor of Crawford's bill on behalf of the trade group.
Henry helped Reichmuth connect the cremains of a veteran and his wife with their daughter, whom the funeral home had struggled to contact.
"I gave him the name, and she responded right away," Reichmuth said.
He can't understand why other funeral directors wouldn't be interested, although he hasn't heard their reasons, he said.
Henry has already mailed every funeral home in the state — nearly 300 — and plans to visit them face-to-face as quickly as he can. So far, just five or six have agreed to work with him.
"I'm going to hit, eventually, every funeral home," he said.
"All I can do is keep trying."