Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The eight vaults housing the cremated remains of veterans and their spouses at Arlington National Cemetery may not be as familiar as the seemingly endless rows of white headstones.

But more than half of the cemetery’s services are now for cremated remains - and with limited burial space, the cemetery is making room for more.

On Tuesday, about 200 people gathered for a ceremony to open the cemetery’s ninth outdoor structure for entombing cremated remains. The 6-foot-tall, nearly half-mile-long outdoor wall known as a columbarium will house the remains of more than 6,500 veterans.

Cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said demand is great for burial space at Arlington, and more people are choosing to cremate their loved ones because the requirements are more relaxed than for in-ground burials.

Only certain members of the military, including those who died while on active duty or were awarded certain decorations, can be buried in the ground at Arlington. But most are eligible for places in the columbarium.

“People want their loved ones placed here because it’s such a storied cemetery with such a special place in our nation’s history,” Ms. Horst said.

Military of all ranks, astronauts, presidents and others are among those buried in the 612-acre cemetery since 1864. The Tomb of the Unknowns also is there.

Undersecretary of the Army Nelson Ford said Tuesday the cemetery is running out of land.

“We’ll come to a point where we won’t have the capability to bury anyone, but it won’t happen in my lifetime,” Mr. Ford said.

In 2011, the cemetery will acquire more burial space after Arlington County approved a 4.3-acre land swap between the county and the federal government.

Of the 6,904 funerals last year, about 4,600 were held for cremated remains, which were placed in the columbaria as well as buried.

Cemetery officials say 62 percent of funeral services are now for cremated remains, and the new wall will ensure enough space for urns over the next four years.

The $5.6 million project was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers and had been scheduled to begin in 1990. But cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler said budget issues delayed the beginning stages of the project until 2004.

Mr. Metzler was introduced to the concept of the niche wall in the 1990s when he toured Fort Rosencrantz National Cemetery in San Diego, which used a wall to hold cremated remains because it was running out of space.

With Arlington’s new wall, the cemetery will be able to hold the cremated remains of more than 46,000 veterans. The first urns are scheduled to be placed in the wall in January.

“It feels pretty good to be able to see something from concept to completion,” Mr. Metzler said. “I’m really anxious to see how family members are going to view this.”

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