Arlington burial: Fanfare, precision

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Army Pfc. William Timothy Dix died in Iraq in April and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on a brilliant May afternoon. He was laid to rest in Section 60, where the sod is fresh and the nearby tombstones bear names such as Justin, Brandon and Ashly: soldiers young enough to be named in the 1980s but old enough to die for their country.

Pfc. Dix was buried with standard military honors: a lone bugler at a 45-degree angle from the casket, the Old Guard with a rifle salute, a somber chaplain and the flag presentation to his family.

It is a ceremony that will be repeated, in some form or another, 26 times that day — and the next, and the day after that.

A day at Arlington National Cemetery is a production worthy of a big-budget Hollywood picture combined with the precision of time-honored military code. Every 20-minute graveside service is a feat of scheduling, horticulture, cleaning, heavy machine operating, measuring and mapping.

More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington. The number of marbled headstones is about 200,000, because many family members share a grave site. Each headstone must be lined up perfectly at all times. On any given morning at sunrise, a maintenance crew is at work, noting where adjustments need to be made. Using an old-school method, the maintenance workers string a red thread through the section to spot a stone listing by even a half-inch.

About 9,000 trees and 624 acres of grass grow at Arlington. The horticulture division is charged with planting and pruning, watering and weeding, growing sod and removing the dirt churned up to make room for the caskets. The goal is for the public to never see an overgrown shrub, a dead tree or flowers wilting in the heat.

Arlington holds nearly 30 burials a day, for veterans, their spouses and an occasional child. That number is a 20 percent increase from a few years ago, said Erik Dihle, chief of Arlington’s horticulture division and burial operations.

“Burials are now increasing dramatically,” Mr. Dihle said. “World War II vets are dying at a peak rate.”

Mr. Dihle added that burials of servicemen and women who died in the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts constitute a small percentage of that number — Pfc. Dix was No. 484. Soldiers who die on active duty are eligible, of course, for military honors at Arlington, but many soldiers’ families choose to have their loved ones buried closer to home.

“A veteran who served 30 years ago gets the same treatment as someone who died in combat,” Mr. Dihle said.

Part of that treatment is maintaining privacy and respect for the family. With four to six funerals an hour, five days a week, the staff has procedures in place to ensure that burials will not cross paths, whether on the road through the cemetery or in the row of graves. Where one is buried at the cemetery has a lot to do with who else is scheduled to be buried that day and what kinds of honors the family chooses.

A simple burial can be arranged in a matter of days. A ceremony with full military honors, with a caisson and horses, requires more personnel and logistics and is therefore more difficult to schedule, said Gina Gray, Arlington National Cemetery’s director of public affairs.

The burial process at Arlington begins with a phone call to the interment services office, the nerve center of the vast parkland in a garden-variety office.

Interment services supervisor Vicki Tanner has worked in this division for 36 years. Her office handles 50 to 150 calls a day, most involving questions about eligibility. As long as a service member was honorably discharged, he is eligible for at least inurnment of cremated remains in the columbarium at Arlington, Ms. Tanner said. Other requirements have been established for higher honors, ground burial and burial of spouses, among others. There is no cost to families for inurnment or interment.

“Very seldom do we turn anyone away,” Ms. Tanner said.

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