By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007
At Arlington National Cemetery on Friday, there were four funerals scheduled at 9 a.m., three at 10 a.m., six at 11 a.m., and 15 between 1 and 3 p.m.
The nation's shrine to its military dead had 6,785 funerals in the just-concluded fiscal year, an all-time record. Now, as the dying of the World War II generation peaks, the cemetery is so busy that despite careful choreography, people attending one funeral can hear the bugle and rifle salutes echoing from another.
As a result, the cemetery is about to begin a $35 million expansion that would push the ordered ranks of tombstones beyond its borders for the first time since the 1960s.
The Millennium Project has been in the works for years as the cemetery has grown busier, dead from the Iraq war have been laid to rest with the veterans of wars past, and visitors have flocked to the see the Tomb of the Unknowns and the graves of such figures as President John F. Kennedy.
Timing at Arlington has become critical. Some of the funerals can be fairly elaborate, with a band, a procession and a horse-drawn caisson, and can take up to 2 1/2 hours. Others might last only 35 or 40 minutes. All must be meticulously scheduled to minimize distractions and avoid traffic tie-ups on the cemetery roadways.
The Millennium expansion has involved, among other things, the sensitive transfer of 12 acres within the cemetery from the National Park Service's historic Arlington House, the onetime home of Robert E. Lee. The Park Service has lamented the likely loss of woodland and the cemetery's encroachment on the majestic hilltop home, which dates to 1802.
The project, which focuses on the northwest edge of the cemetery, includes expansion into about 10 acres taken from the Army's adjacent Fort Myer and four acres of cemetery maintenance property inside the boundaries, officials said.
The extra space would provide room for 14,000 ground burials and 22,000 inurnments in a large columbarium complex, officials said. The project comes on the heels of extensive work underway to utilize 40 acres of unused space in the cemetery, creating room for 26,000 more graves and 5,000 inurnments. And there are plans for further outside expansion in the years ahead.
The cemetery, established in 1864, covers more than 600 acres, and more than 300,000 people are buried there.
The expansions are, in part, a response to the deaths of members of the country's World War II generation, about 16 million of whom served in the armed forces.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says more than 3 million World War II veterans are alive. About 1,000 die each day.
The department's National Cemetery Administration says the number of veteran deaths is peaking, at about 680,000 annually, and is expected to fall gradually to 671,000 in 2010, 622,000 in 2015 and 562,000 in 2020.
"You can see even though it does start to decline, it stays high," administration spokesman Mike Nacincik said.
He said the agency, which does not run Arlington, is in the midst of its largest expansion since the Civil War -- adding 12 national cemeteries across the country to the 125 it operates.
Of those, Nacincik said, half are full or open chiefly for cremation funerals.
Officials at Fort Riley, Kan., declared the eight-acre cemetery at the historic Army base full after the Sept. 18 burial of a World War II veteran. More than 5,000 people are buried there.
At Arlington, which is run by the Army, the steady death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan has added to the numbers, although the cemetery gets only about 11 percent of those cases. More than 400 members of the armed forces who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan have been buried there.
Arlington cemetery officials said they are aware of the trends.
"We want Arlington National Cemetery to be available for veterans into the future," said cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. "We don't want to close it down. Arlington is our nation's national cemetery."
"Part of my job is to look out 100 years," Metzler said. He wanted to be sure that "we're never out of grave space, we're never down to that critical five-year window where we have nothing on the books" that would keep the cemetery open.
The initial work, to be contracted through the Army Corps of Engineers, would control drainage into the new sections, Metzler said.
Katherine Basye Welton, cemetery project manager for the Corps of Engineers, said the first contracts were to be awarded by this month, but because of inadequate bids, the work might not be awarded until the end of the year.
The project is expected to unfold over the next 10 years with funding hoped for from Congress.
But it has not thrilled everyone. Although the transfer of the Arlington House land from the Park Service was decreed by law five years ago, it still rankles there. The parcel, which could lose many of its trees, has not been logged since the Civil War.
"It's disappointing to me to see the conversion of these Arlington House woodlands to development, even if it's a low-key type of development you would see in a cemetery," said Kendell Thompson, site manager at Arlington House. "But we can't undo that."
The cemetery also plans to acquire the Navy Annex in 2010 and demolish it in 2013, and move underground utility lines within the next year or so, to gain more space.
Metzler said the projects should keep the cemetery open through about 2060.
Meanwhile, the pace at Arlington remains brisk.
"We're really busy," said Vicki A. Tanner, chief of the interment services branch. She said the cemetery handles 25 to 30 funerals a day. Some, involving cremated remains, are scheduled for next year.
Tanner said she studies the daily funeral schedule, estimates the size of the ceremony and the time it might require, and then assigns one of four sections where the funeral will take place.
She tries to leave two hours between most services in the same section to give workers time to prepare for the next funeral.
In the 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. slots, "we can do as many as five" funerals, she said. At 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. "we try not to do more than four."
"But if we have to do more, we'll do more," she said.
Tanner, who has worked at Arlington for more than 30 years, said cemetery workers also plan the day's funeral routes and stay in touch with hand-held radios to avoid traffic problems.
At times, participants at one funeral can indeed hear the bugle notes or rifle fire at another. "You don't usually hear the chaplain or anything," she said. "But there's no way of stopping that." She said people rarely complain: "They understand.
"This cemetery will always be here," she said. "As long as it's possible to have land, we'll bury here, and I think that should be. This is a beautiful place. Every time I come through the gate, it's like, whoa. It's like entering another world. It's just awesome.
"This cemetery is eternal," she said.