What does “rest in peace” actually mean? Or in the case of Chester Howard West the more accurate question may be “where does one rest in peace?”
First, some background, and this story takes a little explaining.
Chester Howard West was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service during World War I. The citation states that West, while maneuvering through thick fog near the German lines, dashed through machine gun fire and attacked and killed two gunners, allowing his company to advance without any casualties.
After the war the Colorado native married Maggie VanSickle and settled in Mason County, West Virginia, where he worked as a tenant farmer for Sam McCausland, son of Civil War Confederate General John McCausland.
On May 20, 1935, Sam McCausland shot and killed West during a dispute. McCausland was convicted of second degree murder. West was laid to rest in the VanSickle family cemetery. His widow later remarried, and West left behind no known blood relatives.
According to court documents, the cemetery fell into disrepair and eventually became part of the Chief Cornstalk Wildlife Management Area. The West grave was largely forgotten until 2015 when a Boy Scout found the cemetery and cleaned up the grave as an Eagle Scout project. The badly weathered marker makes no mention of West’s honor.
Family members maintain they tried to gain access to the graveyard, but were denied by the state.
Woody Williams, the state’s only surviving Medal of Honor recipient, learned of the grave and began a drive to move West’s remains to the Nitro Veterans Cemetery for a full military service and burial. However, the VanSickles objected to removal and re-interment, saying there are alternatives to honor West without disturbing the grave.
A circuit judge ruled in favor of Williams’ plans to relocate the grave, but the VanSickle family appealed, and that brings us to yesterday when both sides made their arguments in front of the West Virginia Supreme Court.
VanSickle family attorney Bob Bastress admitted that Williams’ motives are admirable, but added that proper procedures were not followed and that Williams’ goals can be “satisfied by the erection of a marker, monument, or other recognition of Mr. West’s sacrifice and service to this country.”
Williams’ attorney, John Teare, countered that the cemetery had fallen into serious disrepair and that West deserved better than to be left in a forgotten grave that no one could easily access.
This is a curious case for the Justices that raises emotional and moral questions, as well as legal ones. How should we honor our heroes? Should the wishes of the family outweigh the desire to bring military honors and public recognition to a Medal of Honor recipient? What might West have wanted? And finally, is the high court willing to disagree with Woody Williams, one of the state’s most distinguished veterans?
Chester Howard West survived The Great War and came home a hero, only to be murdered and buried in a grave that would later become overgrown and ignored. Now 82 years after his death, his final resting place remains in doubt as the state Supreme Court considers the case.