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Arlington burial: Fanfare, precision

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

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.

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.

The crew will rig the casket to a machine that will lower it into the ground. They will tamp the churned dirt into the earth. Then they will roll up the artificial grass and fold the chairs, and immediately drive them to a different section of the grounds to set up again.