Funeral Director Honored After Organizing Service And Showing Empathy For Veteran
By Douglas Melegari/Pine Barrens Tribune
ATCO—A local funeral director, who organized a burial service free of charge for a Vietnam War veteran upon learning that the man passed away in January without any family members or relatives, was honored last Friday by 8th District Assemblyman Ryan Peters for his “compassionate and selfless act.”
LeRoy Wooster, owner and funeral director of LeRoy P. Wooster Funeral Home and Crematory in the Atco section of Waterford Township, was presented with a proclamation by Peters in the conference room of the 60-year old facility at 2 p.m. on March 8.
The proclamation praised Wooster for organizing the Jan. 18 funeral for Peter Turnpu, 77, attended by more than 1,000 people at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in North Hanover Township.
“On behalf of all veterans, I couldn’t be more thrilled to present this to you,” said Peters, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who has served multiple combat tours overseas and is currently a commander of a SEAL reserve team, to Wooster. “You have set the bar for we are doing for our veterans.”
Wooster told the Pine Barrens Tribune that Turnpu was found unresponsive in his home on Dec. 9, 2018 by a neighbor. After it was determined by police that Turnpu had passed away, the neighbor, according to Wooster, suggested that his body be transported to the funeral home.
“I had two options, one being I could have said this is ‘not my responsibility,’ and have the medical examiner handle the situation,” Wooster told Peters as he was presented with the proclamation. “The other option was realizing this man was alone and deserved not to be buried alone.”
Wooster chose the second option he deemed as “what was right” and accepted Turnpu’s body.
“The (Waterford Township) Police Department handed me a pack of papers,” Wooster said. “I found his birth certificate, his mom’s death certificate, a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and telephone numbers.”
Wooster called all of the numbers, but found no one who was part of Turnpu’s family. Other search methods also came up short, he said.
“I made calls, looked through documents, and even ran a newspaper ad searching for a living family member or relative for Turnpu,” said Wooster of his search efforts before the funeral. “Even with notices to the newspaper I got nothing. Still, to this day, I got nothing.”
Wooster added that the inability to find a living family member for Turnpu made it difficult to process a death certificate for the veteran.
“That part was hard because we didn’t have anyone to contact to get information,” Wooster said. “I had to do a lot of research.”
Peters, after listening to Wooster’s account of the events that led up to the funeral, read a line from the proclamation that states the funeral director represents “the highest ideals of the American spirit.”
“It is an unbelievably compassionate act by Mr. Wooster to not only hold a free service for Peter Turnpu, but to put the amount of effort into it that he did to make sure it was very well attended,” Peters said. “I know he didn’t do it for the recognition, but he deserves every bit of praise he gets.”
Wooster, after the proclamation presentation, brought Peters and the assemblyman’s Chief of Staff Brian Woods into a room inside the funeral home that includes a “Perpetual Wall of Honor” that he established for local veterans who passed away. The wall has a flat screen television with rotating pictures of the deceased veterans, retired flags, and wall posters defining patriotism and honor.
“This serves as a permanent reminder of their sacrifices,” Wooster told Peters and Woods. “We retire a flag with each veteran.”
Peters was particularly moved by the hardwood, triangular U.S. flag case that was displayed containing the campaign medals and dog tag of Wooster’s father.
“This is absolutely amazing,” Peters said. “You have gone above and beyond, and this is just incredible.”
Wooster, who said his grandfather served in the Navy during World War I, and his father was a pharmacist’s mate for the Navy in World War II, told the Pine Barrens Tribune that all funeral homes bury veterans, but he “tries to give a little bit more than others.” He added that he created the wall of honor years ago and also offers special burial packages for veterans.
“I do not do this for merchandising—I do this because when a veteran dies, their family thinks the VA is going to be pay for their service, but they often don’t,” Wooster said. “A certain criteria has to be met to get benefits and many vets don’t meet the criteria. They only get a flag. It is upsetting to see (these denials) because veterans served our nation.”
The funeral director said in a follow-up interview Tuesday that the VA letter he came across addressed to Turnpu did not promise any funeral.
Wooster called Peters’ recognition of his deed to give Turnpu a funeral “one of the greatest honors” of his life.
“It was a shock,” Wooster said. “I don’t think I deserve it because I did what was right.”