Delaying Their Final Goodbyes

At Arlington Cemetery, Officials' and Families' Scheduling Needs Jam Calendar

In a stylish black suit, muted red tie and white shirt, Keith Barnes resembles a dignified funeral director as he sits down at his desk in the administration building of Arlington National Cemetery and notices the blinking red light on his phone. “Four in the queue,” he calls out to fellow cemetery representatives. They're sitting at two rows of desks in the large, glass-walled office that looks out on the cemetery, just now emerging into spring.

“Four in the queue” means that four calls are waiting; as he does 60 or 70 times a day, the 40-year-old former Army chaplain's assistant picks up the phone to take one of them. The office, a total of 16 when they're all at their desks, handles about 300 calls daily from across the country.

On the line with Barnes on this weekday morning is a Newark funeral home representative requesting burial within the next couple of days for the spouse of a World War II veteran who died in 1956 and is buried at Arlington. It is Barnes's duty, as it is frequently, to explain that the next couple of days won't be possible.

“All she wants is a date,” he says to a visitor when his caller puts him on hold, “but there's more to it than that.”

Because there's much more involved with being buried at the 612-acre cemetery than a mere date, families of veterans or veterans' spouses requesting burial or inurnment, for cremated remains, may end up waiting weeks, occasionally months. Once Barnes and his colleagues verify eligibility, a relatively simple matter, they must work to line up a veritable Rubik's Cube of factors that determine when the burial service will be held.

It's a process they must repeat for about 3,000 ceremonies and 6,000 funerals annually, about 26 a day. At the current rate, the cemetery is projected to have enough space to accommodate ground burials until 2060.

These days, three factors — the growing number of deaths of World War II veterans, military branches' additional responsibilities in the time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the increasing popularity of cremation — are exacerbating the delay. Family preference on such matters as time of day, season and type of funeral are contributing factors.

“It's a bell curve,” said John C. Metzler Jr., who has been the cemetery's superintendent since 1990. Metzler, 57, succeeded his father, superintendent from 1951 to 1972. “We will peak between now and 2008,” he added.

The cemetery held 2,740 funerals the year the elder Metzler stepped down, about 11 a day, five days a week. This year, the average has been 26 a day. In 2008, if the numbers peak as expected, Arlington will host 7,400 funerals, or close to 30 a day.

Metzler said men and women who die while on active duty get first priority. Their services usually are held within days.

World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1,056 a day, says Jose Llamas, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Muskegon, Mich., family of World War II veteran Joseph Beyrle is one of those having to wait. As a soldier, Beyrle rarely waited for anything. A paratrooper whose eagerness for leaping out of airplanes earned him the nickname “Jumpin' Joe,” he was 20 when he parachuted into Normandy for the first time. He was wearing bandoleers packed with gold for the French Resistance.

Four years later, Beyrle was captured by the Nazis but escaped after several attempts. He ended up fighting with a Russian tank unit commanded by a female major. After the war, Beyrle went back to Muskegon and married his sweetheart. He died at age 81 on Dec. 12, and his family had his funeral in Muskegon shortly afterward. The body was cremated. He is scheduled to be buried at Arlington on April 22.

The delay at Arlington is something his widow, JoAnne Beyrle, said she understands, even appreciates. It will allow family members — including her son, who is deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow — to make travel plans. The weather also is likely to be more pleasant than it was in December.

“That's exactly when we wanted it,” she said. “The spring of the year is when I wanted to put my Joe to rest.”

Most other family members feel the same way, unless they're members of an orthodox faith that requires immediate burial.


Donald A. Carter, left, and Jeffrey Joyner dig graves at the cemetery. According to projections,
there will be enough burial space until 2060.

“If the most important thing to me is to bury the family member tomorrow, yes, I can do it,” Metzler said. “The actual act of burying someone, we can do that immediately. What I can't do is to produce a chaplain or have an honor guard or make all the other arrangements that certain funerals require.”

Standard military honors include pallbearers, a firing party and a bugler. The family may also request a military chaplain.

In addition to the standard military honors, commissioned and warrant officers may receive full honors, which include a caisson, a military band and escort troops. For Army and Marine veterans with the rank of colonel and higher, a riderless horse may be requested. For flag officers of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, the “Minute Guns” are provided; for flag officers of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, there is a gun salute.

The September 11 factor complicates scheduling further. Before the terrorist attacks, Metzler said, every branch of the military had a full complement of buglers, band members, honor guards and others whose primary mission was to support Arlington. Since then, he said, “each branch of service has taken on new responsibilities” relating to homeland security.

Metzler has an assistant bring him a light-green folder stuffed with memorandums from the various military branches; they contain information about when a band or a bugler or a caisson escort would be available in coming weeks. Or more often, when they would not.

Cremation, the third factor in the scheduling puzzle, gives families the option of scheduling funerals at their convenience but creates peak demand periods.

“Fifty years ago, [cremation] was a very rare item, maybe one or two a week,” Metzler said. “Today, it's 62 percent of our workload. . . . Cremation affords the family the time to get themselves back together again.”

It allows some families to wait weeks, even months, for a date that suits them best; the most requested period is the weeks in June just after schools let out. And some families delay as long as a decade, waiting until the spouse dies so the two can be buried at the same time.

“It used to be rare, having two family members, husband and wife, at the same time,” Metzler said. “Now it's common.”

On the phone with the representative of the New Jersey funeral home, Barnes is explaining politely, with just the barest hint of exasperation, that because Arlington, unlike most local cemeteries, conducts at least 25 services a day, it's not possible for a service to be arranged immediately.

“Generally, our cemetery is booked solid for three weeks out,” he explains.

His caller puts him on hold again while she goes off to confer with the family.

“Local people always know,” he says as he waits. “They don't even ask. But you get someone calling from Ohio or some place, they've never been here before, they just don't know.”

The New Jersey woman's service turns out to be relatively easy to schedule. From a file cabinet, Barnes retrieves a typed card with information that an Arlington representative took down at the time of her husband's funeral nearly 40 years ago, a card that probably hasn't been touched since then. He checks his computer for a time slot and finds one that's less than a week away. It's at 10 in the morning. The family says yes.

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment