Just across the Potomac River from Washington is a thriving city of the dead. Despite the recent scandals involving the mishandling of remains, more than 7,000 veterans choose Arlington National Cemetery every year as their final resting place.
That’s 20 funerals a day. Demand is higher than anytime since the 1960s, partly because of the passing of World War II veterans and partly because Arlington is even more popular with younger generations of veterans.
There are already more than 260,000 graves and niches on Arlington’s 620 acres of beautiful rolling hills. Unfortunately, however, America’s most hallowed ground is rapidly running out of space. Without opening up more land, Arlington will have no room for cremated remains by 2016, or for casket burials by 2025.
To avert closure, cemetery officials are planning another columbarium and two expansions that could extend the life of Arlington until 2035 or beyond. Each land deal, however, is problematic.
The first proposed expansion is the so-called Millennium Project, a pompous name for a small sloping field and large wooded ravine at the western edge of the cemetery. This property lies below Fort Myer, the base of operations for the Army’s Old Guard and several four-star generals.
The Army Corps of Engineers is about to bring in bulldozers before deciding exactly how the Millennium Project site will be used. This is the Corps’ second attempt. Stormwater runoff from Fort Myer is so bad that the Corps has already installed a million-gallon underground storage tank to minimize the erosion of graves. Another concern is the old-growth forest in the steep ravine that borders the cemetery. Depending on how many trees are cut, this 32-acre site could add four to eight years to the life of the cemetery.
The second expansion site is the 42-acre hilltop next to the Air Force Memorial. Now occupied by the Navy Annex, a large 1940s office complex, this land lies across busy Columbia Pike from the cemetery. Moving the highway and demolishing a million square feet of offices could add about 10 years to Arlington’s life.
But no matter what is done, Arlington Cemetery cannot keep growing forever. Today’s efforts to squeeze more yield out of existing acreage and to grab neighboring parcels are, at best, temporary solutions. After that, there is no more land to be had, unless the cemetery takes over all of Fort Myer or begins crowding the Iwo Jima Memorial.
It’s time to give serious thought to a new national cemetery, perhaps at a battlefield such as Gettysburg, Antietam or Manassas, or a prestigious site like Quantico, Annapolis, West Point or even the National Arboretum.
Today’s veterans should be able to choose their place of honor and eternal rest. They have earned it. But tomorrow’s volunteers also deserve that right. Do today’s veterans want to occupy marginal ground at extraordinary cost? Or do they want a new home, a new Arlington, which could be every bit as magnificent as Robert E. Lee’s former plantation?
Veterans should decide soon: Will Arlington be enhanced or diminished by today’s expansions? The Millennium ravine was deemed unfit for burials for 150 years; no amount of engineering will change that. The Navy Annex is a valuable Defense Department asset for today’s fight. In addition, no one is asking how much these expansions will cost. Do veterans want to be interred where taxpayers must pay a fortune for each grave or niche? Is that patriotic?
Some are talking about an Arlington West so that veterans’ families do not have to travel 3,000 miles to visit their heroes. We also need a new Arlington East sooner than we think. Perhaps it’s time to establish two new national cemeteries to honor both our heroes of the past — and of the future.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.