Conversations: Steve Muro

Steve Muro, the man in charge of looking after U.S. military cemeteries

Steve Muro, head of the National Cemetery Administration.
Steve Muro, head of the National Cemetery Administration. (Courtesy Of U.s. Department Of Veterans Affairs - Courtesy Of U.S. Department Of Veterans Affairs)
  Enlarge Photo    
Monday, May 31, 2010

Steve Muro serves as acting undersecretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, putting him in charge of 131 national cemeteries in the United States and Puerto Rico. Military veterans honorably discharged from the Armed Forces, their spouses and dependents are eligible for burial at the national or state military cemeteries at no cost to their families. Muro's team oversaw more than 106,000 burials last year and assisted with 27,000 burials at private cemeteries. The office also cut and shipped more than 352,000 headstones and markers.

So what exactly do you do?

I'm responsible for the operations, maintenance and development of national cemeteries under Department of Veterans Affairs. Our goal is to ensure 90 percent of veterans have a burial option within 75 miles of their residence, which means we'll have either a national or state cemetery within 75 miles of where they reside.

How do you determine where to build new cemeteries?

By the demographics, we look at the population. We used to have 170,000 veterans in 75 mile radiuses. We've changed that now with the support of the secretary [Eric K. Shinseki] and the president and hopefully Congress will support us, and we're reducing that to 80,000 veterans within 75 miles. That's why we have five new national cemeteries that will be built [in Daytona/Melbourne, Fla., Tallahassee, Fla., Buffalo/Rochester, N.Y., Omaha and Southern Colorado].

Do you have enough space in current cemeteries?

Yes, we have 74 cemeteries that are open to full operations. They'll be open for quite a long time. As we get close to closing them, we actually look for land adjacent to them and we purchase land to keep them open.

If we can't find any land adjacent to them and the population is still there, then we try to stay within 10 to 12 miles so we don't have to have a second administrative building to reduce some costs. If we can't, then we do a full service cemetery.

From where do you get the headstones? How are they made?

They're cut of out of quarries in the United States and inscribed. We have bronze markers. We have granite and marble. We contract with quarries and we contract with inscription companies so that we can get the headstones inscribed. One of the things we're proud of is that we're averaging about 26 days to set a headstone from date of internment in our national cemeteries. Because the headstone really helps bring closure for a family.

You said that an important part of your job is customer service. How do you train your workers?

We have our own training center in St. Louis that we're using to train newcomers. Last year we hired 121 new Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and we have to train them, because people don't just know cemetery operations unless you teach them.

We've developed a corps we call cemetery representatives. They meet with the families day in and day out. Four times a year we bring 25 of them to St. Louis. . . . They're there for four days and part of the training is one day at the cemetery with a mock funeral. Walking through it, we start it, we stop it, the hearse comes up, offloads the casket, everything as if we were conducting a real service so we can get it right.

Do you get desensitized to what you're doing or is there some kind of reminder you have of the importance of this job?

In this position, it's the thank you letters that are received from next of kins. . . . Those are the things that remind me that yes, we do touch the veterans. And we have the toughest touch of the veterans, because they're bringing their loved ones, whether it's a spouse or a child.

When I was a cemetery intern, my first service was a baby. Talk about tough: The hearse opened the door and there mom sat with the casket in her hands on her lap. . . . It was a tough service, but I conducted it, I did it and I learned from that.

They're all that way, whether they're a small casket or a full-sized casket, someone just lost a loved one. And they're trusting them to us to take care of them for eternity. When we're all long gone, and someone's going to be managing these national cemeteries, someone's going to come out and visit those headstones. You can walk through some of our cemeteries and see lipstick on the headstones.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company