SEATTLE—James Lindley descended the basement stairs of the Columbia Funeral Home, took off his plaid shirt and changed into a black suit and tie.
He leaned into a mirror and checked the precise part in his dirty-blond hair under the light of a bare bulb. He knotted his tie in a double Windsor, replicating the symmetry his drill sergeant demanded in Marine Corps boot camp.
The face staring back wore the pallor of a man who spends most days in a windowless room, embalming corpses.
Black plastic urns were stacked on a table nearby. Each contained the ashes of a military veteran. Abandoned by families, ignored by bureaucracy, these men had been on a shelf for years before they landed here awaiting their last rites.
Mr. Lindley poured the remains of a Marine, a sailor and two soldiers into polished brass urns engraved with their names.
Then Mr. Lindley, a 34-year-old mortician, headed back …