On the day of Edward K. Pearson's funeral, traffic in Sarasota, Florida, came to a standstill. An estimated 4,000 people showed up to pay their respects to the 80-year-old Army veteran, and the roads were so jammed that the service had to be delayed for nearly an hour while the car carrying his ashes was stuck in transit.
Hardly any of the mourners packing Sarasota National Cemetery for the full military funeral on Oct. 1 had met the man they were there to honor. Instead, they had come because of a brief obituary that had gone viral, saying that the elderly veteran had no immediate family and inviting the public to attend his memorial service.
It was a heartwarming story. But the truth turned out to be slightly more complicated.
As Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Chris Anderson recently discovered, Pearson actually had two sons, and had walked out on his family when the boys were teenagers. Until their father's obituary went viral, they had been under the impression that he was dead. But even though the two men came forward the day before the service, the funeral home didn't inform the public that Pearson did, indeed, have living family members.
"At the very least, it should have been mentioned at the service that family had been found," Anderson wrote on Tuesday. "It was not mentioned. Instead, a Legacy Options funeral director spoke about the services his business provides."
Over the past year, services for unclaimed veterans in Tennessee, Michigan, Nebraska and Massachusetts have drawn hundreds of strangers, with veterans' groups and funeral homes spreading the word on social media. In January, after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and CNN's Jake Tapper encouraged people to attend an Air Force veteran's funeral in Texas, more than 1,000 people showed up, creating a traffic jam that stretched for miles. Though the man had been thought to have no family, his daughter saw the media coverage and came forward after the funeral.
Pearson's obituary went viral in a similar fashion. The Naples, Florida, resident, who had served in the Army from 1962 to 1964, died of natural causes on Aug. 31, the Herald-Tribune reported. At the time, there were no known survivors, and a social worker contacted a nearby funeral home that provides free burials for indigent veterans. On Sept. 29, Legacy Options Funeral and Cremation Services published a short obituary in the Naples Daily News, letting people know when Pearson's memorial service would take place.
"This Veteran has no immediate family," the notice concluded, "all are welcome to attend."
Mike Hoyt, the funeral home's director, told the Herald-Tribune last week that he made "a couple phone calls" to veterans' organizations, thinking that maybe 100 people would show up. But after local news outlets picked up on the story, it took on a life of its own, and the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Tapper and the American Legion encouraged people to show their respects. One Sarasota restaurant even offered a free pizza to anyone who attended, the Herald-Tribune reported.
The result was a crowd so large that Hoyt, who had driven two hours from Naples, needed a police escort to get to the service. John Rosentrater, the director of the Sarasota National Cemetery, told the Tampa Bay Times that it was the largest turnout he had seen for an unclaimed veteran's funeral in the cemetery's 10-year-old history. He suspected that people had been touched by the photo that ran alongside Pearson's obituary, featuring a smiling, bespectacled man.
"It was a very endearing picture," he told the paper. "It could have been my grandpa."
Many of the strangers who showed up said they were inspired by family members who had served in the military, or that they were veterans themselves. The thought of an elderly man dying alone seemed to strike a chord, and many said they felt a duty to thank Pearson for his service to the country.
"I just felt the urge to be here," one veteran told WTSP. "To make sure that he was not alone."
Feel-good stories about the impressive turnout appeared in outlets including CNN and USA Today. But for Pearson's two sons, the funeral provoked a more complicated set of emotions.
"I was kind of surprised he was still alive all this time and I never knew about it," Edward Pearson Jr. told the Herald-Tribune. "I'm hurt because all these years I could have talked to him and found out why he did what he did to us and why we were lied to."
The 55-year-old told the paper that his father never paid child support after abruptly abandoning his family, and that the last time they spoke was in 1983. For reasons that remain unclear, his father's second wife passed along the message that Pearson Sr. had died while being electrocuted at work, and, for years, that was what the family believed.
Then, on the day before the funeral, Pearson's sons found about their father's death the same way that thousands of other people did: through social media.
Though it was too late to make plans to travel to Sarasota, the two men contacted the funeral home that same day to identify themselves as the veteran's immediate family. Blair McFarlane, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, which volunteers at unclaimed veterans' funerals, told the Herald-Tribune that it's not uncommon for relatives to come out of the woodwork at the last possible moment, and that his group will typically get a "stand down" request when that happens.
But that didn't happen in Pearson's case, and the public was never notified that the veteran's family had been found, even as stories about the funeral proliferated in local and national news outlets. When asked about the omission last week, Hoyt initially told the Herald-Tribune's Anderson that the family hadn't wanted their existence to be public knowledge, but later admitted he hadn't been told that personally.
"At first the funeral home stated the family did not want to be involved, but then backtracked," Anderson wrote in a follow-up column on Tuesday. "Liz Pearson, Edward Pearson Jr.'s wife, said the family would have attended had they learned of the service earlier. The funeral home hung up when asked if they thought they deceived the public."
The funeral home did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Wednesday night.
McFarlane had his own theory. If the funeral home had told the full story, "they don't get the publicity," he told the Herald-Tribune. "They don't get the crowd for Mr. Pearson."