Rest Doesn’t Come Easy at Arlington

Courtesy of the Washington Post
And Dedicated To My Friend, Keith Barnes

Keith Barnes circled the pavement in front of the administrative building at Arlington  National Cemetery, looking for a spot to  park his government-owned black Chevy  Lumina. There was a bit of urgency to his  search.

In the back seat were an American flag  folded into a triangle and, inside a small    golden box, the cremated remains of Harry  Broley, a Washington urban planner, political consultant and raconteur who had  served as a Navy pilot in the Pacific in World War II. Broley's ashes were scheduled to be buried with full military honors at Arlington at 1 p.m., about five minutes hence, and Barnes was the cemetery representative in charge of the service.

Three other funerals were scheduled for 1 p.m., and the place was filling with  mourners. There was the retired Air Force officer whose service was scheduled in Section 66, with body bearers, a firing party and a bugler. In Section 4, an Army officer – a World War II company commander  who helped hold the famed Remagen bridge  over the Rhine River in Germany – was scheduled to be buried in a ceremony with full honors, including a band. Over at the columbarium – an area of granite vaults holding cremated remains – a Marine's  interment was to be accompanied by a firing  party and a bugler.

“This could get messy,” Barnes fretted. “You don't want the families  running into each other.”

All told, there were 23 funerals on a gray November day last week, from no-frills interments to ceremonies with caisson-drawn coffins accompanied by marching bands, firing parties and even a flyover by jet fighters.

“I have never seen so many funerals,” Sarah Broley, Harry Broley's wife, said later. “It was something.”

It was just an average day at Arlington.

The hectic pace at the 612-acre national cemetery has led to  unprecedented delays in burials this year. It is driven by two developments. World War II and Korean War veterans are dying at a  faster rate – about 575,000 of all veterans are projected to die in the next  year, and the number is expected to grow each year before peaking at   607,000 in 10 years, according to cemetery officials.

Also, increasing demands for White House ceremonies, Pentagon honor cordons, concerts and other public events often make it difficult for the military to send the full complement of honor guards and bands needed every day for the increasing number of funerals.

On top of everything else, Arlington  is filling up. About 260,000 people are buried in 195,000 graves, and officials project the remaining 60,000 grave sites will be filled by 2025. The possibility of expanding onto some of the land now occupied by the Navy Annex and Fort Myer is being studied.

Until about a year and a half ago, according to J.C. “Jack” Metzler Jr., superintendent of Arlington  cemetery, the wait for a funeral with full honors generally was not longer than a week. This year, delays often have been two weeks, and in some cases, three weeks.

Someone dying today, Veterans Day, who wishes to be buried with full honors at Arlington using the Fort Myer military chapel probably would not be laid to rest until around Thanksgiving.

Already, services are booked for the first week of 1999 by families who,  when confronted with the wait, schedule funerals for their own convenience. Long-delayed funerals often involve remains that have been cremated, otherwise a funeral home simply holds the body until the day of  the ceremony.

“People have to make a choice,” said Metzler, an Army Vietnam veteran  who has been superintendent at Arlington since 1981. “If you want all of  the honors, including a chapel service, then you may have to wait. If burying someone quickly is important to you, then you have to waive the honors.”

Harry Broley was getting all the honors. Barnes found a makeshift parking space and rushed inside, leaving the car and ashes behind.

Clad in a somber gray suit and aviator sunglasses, Barnes, 34, found the Broley mourners in a large waiting room and politely instructed them to get  in their cars and form a line behind him.

Back in the car, Barnes led the procession through an Air Force honor guard, whose members snapped to attention, not realizing they had the  wrong funeral. “They're going to find out real quick it's the wrong one,” said Barnes, whizzing past the airmen.

A bit farther down the road, a Navy honor guard waited. When Barnes glided to a halt, sailors in white dress uniforms opened the back doors of  the Chevy and ceremoniously removed the flag and urn. Stretched along  the road, ready to fall into parade, stood the enormous manpower that  makes up a full-honors military ceremony – nearly 60 sailors and soldiers  in immaculate uniforms.

First came the escort officer  accompanied by a flag bearer, then  the 18-person band, the four-person  color guard, a marching platoon of 18 sailors, the horse-drawn caisson –  pulled by six black horses and  accompanied by four Army riders – and the eight body bearers. Waiting at the grave was the seven-person firing party.

As the band played and the horses clip-clopped, the procession paraded to the grave site. The family was seated on green velvet chairs. The band played a hymn as the body bearers unfolded a flag over the urn. The chaplain offered quiet prayers.

Three volleys of shots rang out, and then another three, but they were both from other 1 p.m. funerals. Finally, the Navy firing team fired its three volleys.

Down the road, Walter Jones, a cemetery groundskeeper, pulled up in a  pickup truck to clean up after the horses. He started to shovel but paused respectfully as a lone bugler blew out the mournful taps.

With painstaking precision, the body bearers folded the flag, and then a Navy officer presented it to the widow with the nation's thanks.

The funeral had come off beautifully – “very impressive,” Sarah Broley said approvingly. But there was no time for Barnes to bask.

“Now I'm running behind,” Barnes said. “I've got 15 minutes to be with the  next family.”

Metzler, 51, is following in the footsteps of his father, J.C. Metzler, who  was superintendent of Arlington for 21 years beginning in 1951, overseeing the funerals of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

When the elder Metzler stepped down in 1972, the cemetery held 2,740 funerals that year, about 11 a day, five days a week. This year, the average has been 23 a day.

Cemetery officials expect the workload will increase by 200 funerals a year for the next 10 years, peaking in 2008, when they expect 7,400 funerals, or close to 30 a day.

“I think generally when people are buried at Arlington, they want all the  honors, so they're willing to wait,” Metzler said.

Catherine Palmer had waited more than four weeks for the columbarium service for her father, retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Crane. “It doesn't close the door,” she said of the delay. But it gave family members time to gather from around the country, and in any event, they never considered going anyplace else. “He spent 30 years in the Air Force, and this was his life,” Palmer said. “He always said this was where he wanted to be.”

In the case of Broley, who died September 9, the delay did not matter. Two nonmilitary memorial services already had been held, and the Arlington funeral was set for the day after what would have been his 75th birthday.

The first four funerals that day were scheduled at 8 a.m. at the columbarium. These were “no-honors, no-service” funerals, involving veterans or their spouses whose cremated remains had been mailed to the cemetery. In many such cases, the families are unable to make the journey and instead hold memorial services in their home towns. Other times, elderly people die with nobody left to come to the funeral.

“Whether no one's here or not, you do it with as much dignity as possible,” said Reginald Mason, after he placed the widow of an Army warrant officer in her niche.

Shortly after 8:15 a.m., buses began rolling in from the Washington Navy  Yard and Bolling Air Force Base, carrying honor guards and bands that would spend the entire day at Arlington, hopscotching from one funeral to  the next.

The Army Old Guard's two black artillery caissons – which have been  in service since 1918 and are the same ones that carried the Kennedys, had rolled in from Fort Myer, adjacent to the cemetery. The caisson platoon had been up since 4 a.m., washing the horses, shining the tack and preparing for the seven funerals they would work that day.

By 9 a.m., full-honors funerals were underway, and later in the morning,  there was one that had been delayed 28 years, for Lt. Michael A. Ford, a Navy aviator who died when his Phantom jet crashed in the Mediterranean Sea in 1970. The pilot's body had never been recovered. His son, Michael A. Ford II, who was 2 when his father died, learned only this year that his father was entitled to a marker at Arlington.

Afterward, Ford clutched the folded American flag presented to him close to his chest and poked his feet through the fallen leaves, looking for the spent cartridges from the firing party's salute to his father.

All through the morning and afternoon, the funerals continued. The caissons pulled caskets through the tree-lined lanes of Arlington. Volleys of shots echoed. Time after time, the baleful strains of taps summoned tears.

Then the caissons rolled back to Fort Myer, where the horses would be fed and rested. Here and there, across the rolling, beautiful landscape of Arlington, excavators dug graves, ready for the next day's work.

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