Delaying Their Final Goodbyes

A horse-drawn caisson carries a coffin for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, which holds about 26 such ceremonies a day.
A horse-drawn caisson carries a coffin for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, which holds about 26 such ceremonies a day. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005

In a stylish black suit, muted red tie and white shirt, Keith Barnes resembles a dignified funeral director as he sits down at his desk in the administration building of Arlington National Cemetery and notices the blinking red light on his phone. "Four in the queue," he calls out to fellow cemetery representatives. They're sitting at two rows of desks in the large, glass-walled office that looks out on the cemetery, just now emerging into spring.

"Four in the queue" means that four calls are waiting; as he does 60 or 70 times a day, the 40-year-old former Army chaplain's assistant picks up the phone to take one of them. The office, a total of 16 when they're all at their desks, handles about 300 calls daily from across the country.

On the line with Barnes on this weekday morning is a Newark funeral home representative requesting burial within the next couple of days for the spouse of a World War II veteran who died in 1956 and is buried at Arlington. It is Barnes's duty, as it is frequently, to explain that the next couple of days won't be possible.

"All she wants is a date," he says to a visitor when his caller puts him on hold, "but there's more to it than that."

Because there's much more involved with being buried at the 612-acre cemetery than a mere date, families of veterans or veterans' spouses requesting burial or inurnment, for cremated remains, may end up waiting weeks, occasionally months. Once Barnes and his colleagues verify eligibility, a relatively simple matter, they must work to line up a veritable Rubik's Cube of factors that determine when the burial service will be held.

It's a process they must repeat for about 3,000 ceremonies and 6,000 funerals annually, about 26 a day. At the current rate, the cemetery is projected to have enough space to accommodate ground burials until 2060.

These days, three factors -- the growing number of deaths of World War II veterans, military branches' additional responsibilities in the time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the increasing popularity of cremation -- are exacerbating the delay. Family preference on such matters as time of day, season and type of funeral are contributing factors.

"It's a bell curve," said John C. Metzler Jr., who has been the cemetery's superintendent since 1990. Metzler, 57, succeeded his father, superintendent from 1951 to 1972. "We will peak between now and 2008," he added.

The cemetery held 2,740 funerals the year the elder Metzler stepped down, about 11 a day, five days a week. This year, the average has been 26 a day. In 2008, if the numbers peak as expected, Arlington will host 7,400 funerals, or close to 30 a day.

Metzler said men and women who die while on active duty get first priority. Their services usually are held within days.

World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1,056 a day, says Jose Llamas, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Muskegon, Mich., family of World War II veteran Joseph Beyrle is one of those having to wait. As a soldier, Beyrle rarely waited for anything. A paratrooper whose eagerness for leaping out of airplanes earned him the nickname "Jumpin' Joe," he was 20 when he parachuted into Normandy for the first time. He was wearing bandoleers packed with gold for the French Resistance.

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