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Arlington burial: Fanfare, precision
Technology makes the process easier. The office has a database to look up information on veterans who were retired. If the veteran was not retired, honorable discharge papers must be presented, she said. If the family has no papers, records can be found at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. However, a 1973 fire compromised the files, so a small research job sometimes proves trickier than expected, Ms. Tanner said.
Ms. Tanner said her office has been noticeably busier in the past five years. Many of the calls come from the grown children of long-retired servicemen ready to go to their final resting place. Calls from young widows of active-duty soldiers are not easy, Ms. Tanner said.
“You see these families with young kids,” she said. “It is really tragic.”
The interment office was overwhelmingly busy in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Tanner said. American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon practically in sight of the cemetery. Sixty-four people killed that day are buried at Arlington.
“We tried to help all of them as fast as we could,” Ms. Tanner said. “It was one of the few times we buried on Saturdays.”
While Ms. Tanner reflected on that horrible day, members of the interment staff were perusing a map of the cemetery, marking off where upcoming burials can be scheduled without crossover. The maps mark roads and sections, and highlight available spaces. Unlike at private cemeteries, spaces cannot be reserved. Grave assignments are made without preference to rank, class, sex or race, the day before the burial.
Next year, Arlington is scheduled to trade its printed maps for Global Positioning System technology that can keep up with the need for space and a landscape that changes daily.
Some predict the grounds will run out of space by 2060. Ms. Tanner said she doesn’t think that will happen, especially since the cemetery is scheduled to take over nearby land eventually.
“We’ve got sections in which there are no burials yet,” she said. “We’re getting a new columbarium. There will be space long after I am gone, even after my grandchildren are gone.”
The workday at Arlington starts with a morning meeting and a computer printout. The printout is the vital daily document at the cemetery. It tells the staff — from gravediggers, to chaplains, to drivers, to the 1,300-member Old Guard — what they need to know about the day’s ceremonies and the preparation for the next day’s.
Each entry on the document has the deceased’s name, rank and next-of-kin contact. It shows where the grave is, how deep it needs to be dug, whether another family member is already buried there or who someday will be buried there. It details the deceased’s faith and what kinds of honors will be taking place.
“There are a lot of things you have to keep in your head,” said engineer tech Daniel Manning. This morning he is preparing a grave in Section 135. The engineering staff is busy digging graves, lowering grave liners and moving caskets as part of a day’s work among the living.
“In the beginning, you can get a little [creeped out],” Mr. Manning said. “But it’s a job. People have a physical address when living. This is their new address. It is just something that goes on.”
Pfc. Dix’s burial, one of four that hour at various corners of the grounds, goes off as planned. A chaplain says a few words. Flags are presented to Pfc. Dix’s parents and sister. A member of the Arlington Ladies — the volunteer corps of women who attend each and every funeral at Arlington “so no soldier will be buried alone” — presents the family with a letter from the secretary of the Army. In the distance, a baby cries and another guard unit files into the columbarium.
The mourners leave the temporary artificial grass area surrounding the casket and return to their line of cars. What they don’t see: Waiting in a truck 100 yards away, respectfully out of sight, is a crew ready to continue another burial ceremony.
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