Arlington Cemetery struggles with old reservations

Officials at Arlington National Cemetery — still unable to fully account for who is buried where at the nation’s premier military resting place — are struggling to determine who has reserved plots and whether some of those grave sites are already in use.

Years of sloppy recordkeeping have left officials with no reliable data on how many reservations have been made for plots in the 624-acre cemetery. The problem — along with the discovery that an unofficial reservation system for VIPs continued for decades in violation of Army regulations — is yet another challenge for the cemetery’s new leaders.

Last year, Army investigators found that graves were mismarked and unmarked, that burial urns had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile, and that millions of dollars had been wasted on failed attempts to digitize the cemetery’s paper record system. As a result, the Army ousted the cemetery’s top two leaders, Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham.

Since then, more problems have emerged, including the discovery of people buried in the wrong plots and a mass grave that held eight sets of cremated remains.

The cemetery’s new leaders are dealing with the reservations mess — an issue that highlights how deeply some care about not only being interred at Arlington but also about where in the cemetery they are buried. The reservations were made under a little-known system that ended in 1962, as the cemetery grew in popularity and officials decided that its coveted plots should be offered without regard to rank or status.

But not all of the cemetery’s 70 sections were created equal. Some sit atop hills with views of Washington and are full of Medal of Honor recipients and high-ranking officials. Others are in out-of-the-way corners rarely visited by tourists. Some of the most prestigious are close to the Tomb of the Unknowns or the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s grave.

The cemetery’s inability to keep track of the reservations is causing heartache and anger among family members who had long thought the final resting places were secure.

Kathryn Condon, who was appointed executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program last year in the aftermath of the scandal, said that the cemetery has 3,500 reservations on file but that there could be more.

“As part of our accountability, we’re going to look at all of those reservations,” she said.

Cemetery officials have no idea how many of the reservations on file are still valid, Condon said. Officials aren’t sure whether everyone on the list is still alive — some reservations date to the late 1800s — or still wants to be buried at Arlington. They also don’t know how many plots are marked as “reserved” on cemetery maps. But the number could be substantial. The Washington Post counted nearly 300 such plots in a prestigious section near the Memorial Amphitheater that had 1,361 grave sites.

Another problem has been that although Arlington honors reservations made before 1962, it does so only if the person meets current eligibility requirements for burial at the cemetery. The criteria have become stricter since the 1960s: Veterans now must have died while on active duty, be entitled to retirement pay or have received a top award such as the Medal of Honor.

But the cemetery hasn’t always told families that their reservations may no longer be valid.

‘Very upsetting’

The letter, dated Feb. 1, 1954, declared that based on his five years of service, Carl Bauersfeld and his wife were eligible for burial in a national cemetery; the superintendent of Arlington would be advised to set aside two graves near those of Bauersfeld’s parents — 602-4 and 602-5 in Section 34.

The Bauersfelds kept the letter for decades, and when Carl died in 2009, his son, who is also named Carl, presented it to the cemetery.

But the cemetery declined to honor the reservation, even though the plot was still available. Although the elder Bauersfeld had been eligible in 1954 for burial, the rules had changed, and he did not meet the current requirements. That came as a shock to family members, who said they were never notified that the reservation was no longer valid. Now, in addition to dealing with his grief, the younger Bauersfeld found himself unable to fulfill his father’s wish.

“My father asked me to handle his burial at Arlington,” he said. “This whole thing is very upsetting to me, because I have not been able to do what I have been asked to do.”

Ultimately, the cemetery agreed that Carl Bauersfeld could be buried there, but not in his own grave. He was interred in the same plot that held his father’s remains.

“They say they changed the rules, but they never contacted him during his life,” the younger Bauersfeld said. “Only in death do we find out. . . . This is a clear case of not honoring their commitments.”

John Britton feels the same way about how his family was treated.

In 1960, the Britton family was granted reservations for 10 contiguous burial plots by the Army’s quartermaster general. They were in a choice section so close to the Tomb of the Unknowns that you can hear the clicking of the soldiers’ heels during the changing of the guard.

For years afterward, the cemetery honored those reservations, burying Brittons in their set-aside graves. But in 2001, John Britton visited his family’s grave sites and discovered that the cemetery had buried other people in five of the remaining plots.

“I was madder than a hoot owl,” the 79-year-old Fauquier County man said.

Eventually, the cemetery admitted the error, which Metzler wrote was “due to an administrative oversight.” The Brittons were offered several other plots nearby.

But according to a map of the section, three of those new graves had been reserved for other people, and one was marked as obstructed. Not wanting to take spaces that had been promised to others, the Brittons refused.

Late last year, the cemetery’s new administration offered the Brittons several other grave sites, but all of them are marked on the maps as obstructed.

The cemetery declined to discuss the specifics of the offer but said that obstructed graves can be reviewed over time and deemed available. The Brittons still want their original plots, but most of the families of those buried there don’t want their loved ones to be moved, and without their consent, the cemetery will not disinter them.

‘De facto reserved’

Although the cemetery stopped formally taking reservations in 1962, the practice of reserving choice grave sites continued, if unofficially, under Raymond J. Costanzo, who was superintendent from 1972 to 1990. Metzler, his successor, who ran the cemetery until he was forced to retire last year, also apparently allowed people to pick areas of the cemetery where they wanted to be buried, Army officials said.

The Army, which investigated the matter two decades ago and is looking into it again, has a list from 1990 with “senior officials” who have plots that “were de facto reserved in violation of Army policy,” according to a memo obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act. Some of those officials were driven around the cemetery by Costanzo, who told investigators that he had allowed them to pick their spots.

“I take the position that if there is anything I can do positively for a person, I will try to do that as long as it is not a serious violation of any rule, regulation or law,” he told investigators at the time.

Five months after receiving a request from The Post, the Army has declined to release the 1990 list of people with reservations. It has not released documents, found by Condon, that appeared to show that Metzler also pre-assigned grave sites or promised availability in certain sections. She has since turned the documents over to the Army inspector general. (The revelation that graves were reserved unofficially was first reported by Salon.com last year.)

Superintendents of national cemeteries, especially those with limited space, are often under pressure to find choice spots for important people, none more so than Arlington’s, said Roger Rapp, a former deputy undersecretary for operations with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration.

“I’ve been with Jack, and he’s told me the amount of calls he got from senators and high-ranking officials — people concerned about would they have a spot or a particular spot in the cemetery,” said Rapp, who has been friends with Metzler for 30 years. “I know he was under tremendous pressure.”

To accommodate that pressure, cemetery directors have to keep graves in sought-after sections “in your hip pocket,” he said. “If a Supreme Court justice dies and if the cemetery director does not put them in an area where the other Supreme Court justices are, it makes him look like he’s not doing his job. Most cemetery directors know where they can find burial space. That’s just the way it is.”

Metzler, who has repeatedly declined to give interviews, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Condon said the cemetery would not honor any reservations made after 1962.

“We do not do reservations, and anyone who claims to have a reservation post-1962, we do not accommodate them,” she said. “When the loved one or veteran passes, that’s when we determine where we’ll bury them.”

In the eight months that she has been running the cemetery, Condon has turned down several people who said they had been promised a burial plot.

“I’m off a lot of people’s Christmas card lists,” she said.

Condon said the cemetery does “accommodate families in their time of need” by allowing survivors to choose an area of the cemetery for their loved one as they plan the funeral. If there is an available grave site in that area, she said, the family would be granted the spot.

Section 7A, near the Tomb of the Unknowns, is full of generals and Medal of Honor recipients. Lee Marvin, the actor and a World War II veteran, and Joe Louis, the boxing champion, are buried there. So are Costanzo and Metzler’s father, who was Arlington’s superintendent from 1951 to 1972.

Cemetery officials said that if the younger Metzler is buried at Arlington, he would be treated like everyone else: unable to reserve a site but allowed to request a general area of the cemetery, as long as there are grave sites available.

There aren’t many left in Section 7A. But the plot in front of his father’s grave is vacant.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

 
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