The dramatic expansion plans are part of a whirlwind of modernization and improvements put in place since investigators revealed widespread problems several years ago. The changes, including digitized records that allow cemetery visitors to look up burial sites online, have transformed internal operations and the visitor experience at the cemetery, which dates to the Civil War.
But one project — which officials say would beautify the area and add more than 27,000 much-needed interment sites for veterans on the northern side of the grounds — has sparked opposition.
Critics say the Millennium Project, as the 27-acre expansion is called, doesn’t fit the historic site, would damage a stream and raze hundreds of trees in place since the Civil War. And some ask whether it would make more sense to begin planning for the inevitable: the day when the cemetery will be full.
It’s no small question for a place that attracts more than 4 million visitors a year, with graves that span U.S. history, including Revolutionary War soldiers, U.S. presidents, Abner Doubleday, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Joe Louis, Pierre L’Enfant and many thousands of others who served the country.
“I love Arlington. But it’s not big enough for all future wars,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It seems like we need to be preparing for Arlington Two, making sure it’s just as nice and wonderful and historical as Arlington One.”
On Thursday, the cemetery will dedicate a new columbarium court, nearly as long as two football fields, where more than 20,000 cremated remains can be stored. Without it, Arlington would have run out of what cemetery officials call “niche” space by 2016.
Now the focus is on new grave sites with the Millennium Project. “This is important,” said Kathryn Condon, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, “because if we do nothing today, we will run out of in-ground burial space in 2025.”
There are about 22 million living U.S. veterans now, said Paige Lowther, of the National Cemetery Administration at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and each day many hundreds die.
Nationally, only a little more than half of the VA’s 131 national cemeteries — administered separately from Arlington, which is run by the U.S. Army — are fully open for new burials.
The VA is planning to expand, as well, with five enormous new cemeteries.
But Arlington’s history sets it apart. Federal troops took over the Arlington House estate that had been home to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his family during the Civil War and began burying Union soldiers there, including 1,800 killed at Bull Run.