Small record-keeping errors might exist concerning tens of thousands of graves at Arlington National Cemetery, but a review of every plot has not found any additional cases of people being buried in the wrong places, cemetery officials said Friday.
The grave-by-grave accounting of the country’s preeminent military burial ground was mandated by Congress last year after an Army investigation found widespread problems at the 150-year-old cemetery, including misidentified and misplaced remains, urns that had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile, and millions of dollars wasted on botched contracts.
The FBI, with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, is conducting a broad investigation into possible criminal activity.
Until only recently, the cemetery — which has 260,000 grave markers — relied on an antiquated paper system, despite spending millions on contracts that failed to provide a digitized system.
Although a report is still weeks away from completion, Arlington officials have so far reviewed 86 percent of the cemetery and found thousands of possible errors involving such information as dates of death, name spellings and military ranks.
It was not clear Friday exactly how many problems there are, but cemetery officials said they are comparing all available paperwork with what appears on the grave markers and flagging anything suspicious.
For example, they’ve found paperwork that says a person died Sept. 10, although the headstone reads Sept. 30. After checking the cremation certificate, they were able to determine that the headstone is right.
The update was provided to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sponsored the bill requiring Arlington to account for every grave. Since the measure’s passage last year, Arlington has launched an ambitious effort to scan all paper records into a digital format, photograph each grave and create a detailed, Google-map-like record of the entire cemetery. Eventually, officials plan to have an online database that will be available to the public.
After the briefing, McCaskill said she was encouraged by the actions of the cemetery’s new administration, which took over after the previous leadership was ousted last year.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” she said. “Most importantly, I know that going forward, they’re never going to have this problem again. They now take this responsibility as seriously as it should have been taken all along.”
Although the cemetery is comparing paper records and grave markers, there is still no guarantee that everyone is buried in the right place. It has opened plots for verification in only a few extreme cases.
As news of the cemetery’s problems spread last year, the widow of an Army staff sergeant called the cemetery to ask about her husband’s grave.
She was told that the paperwork showed he was where he was supposed to be. Unconvinced, she asked the cemetery to open the grave. When they did, cemetery officials found someone else buried there: the wife of a retired Air Force colonel.
The colonel also had called the cemetery and been told that his wife was where she was supposed to be.