Veterans Pay Emotional Price for Free Burial

At the Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery, burial is free for a veteran and spouse, but critics say the rules and procedures lack grace.
At the Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery, burial is free for a veteran and spouse, but critics say the rules and procedures lack grace. (By Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

World War II Navy Seaman John Adams stood over the grave of his wife of 24 years at the Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery last week and shook his head in disgust.

Six months passed after the burial in June 2006 before a marker was placed above her final resting place. And now, nearly a year after Winifred C. Adams's funeral, there still is no grass covering her grave.

"It is terrible how they treat people out here," said Adams, 80.

Cheltenham is one of five cemeteries run by the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. Each of the cemeteries is designed to fulfill the nation's final pledge to its veterans: free burial for them and their spouses.

In return, the veterans must accept certain rules. They can't buy plots in advance for their families. And they must forget the idea of a traditional burial involving graveside ceremonies with green tents and manicured lawns. At Cheltenham, families are allowed about 15 minutes to say farewell to their loved one at the cemetery's chapel, and then the remains are taken away for a mass burial in rows of 20.

Imogene Stewart, past president of the American Legion Auxiliary of the District of Columbia, said she has complained about Cheltenham for years. "You can't even die in peace," she said. "At times, this cemetery looks like a potter's field because it is cheap and families have nowhere else to go, but we must do better about our veterans."

Martin F. Fahey, superintendent of the Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery, said he wishes that things were different.

"I am a veteran," he said. "I hate to say it, but [it] is like an assembly line out here."

Fahey said that he empathizes with grieving families but that the cemetery has a system to follow. Once a section of about 20 graves fills up, the soil is placed, grass seed is planted and in a few months the area will match most of the cemetery, which has acres of green grass.

The system is designed to deal with the numbers of veterans who are dying. Since Cheltenham opened in 1978, more than 17,000 people have been buried there, according to cemetery officials.

"When I started in 2002," Fahey said, "we buried about 650 that year. Last year, we buried more than 1,000."

Such numbers compel Cheltenham to adhere strictly to regulations, including a policy that a spouse can't remain interred at the cemetery if the veteran is not eventually buried there as well.

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