Law halts replacement of Tomb of Unknowns

Congress has blocked the possible replacement of the cracked Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery pending a study of ways to repair the existing marble monument instead.

A defense bill President Bush signed into law Monday includes an amendment to prevent replacement of the tomb pending a report to Congress. The cemetery had been leaning toward replacing the monument, which was installed in 1931, to maintain its dignity.

“We want to have as flawless a monument as possible for our unknown service members,” said Kara McCarthy, spokeswoman for the cemetery, on Tuesday. “We’ve tried repairing it, but the cracks will continue to get worse.”

Millions of people visit the tomb each year and soldiers guard the sculpted sarcophagus at all times. It overlooks Washington from across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., and is the scene of Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremonies by the president.

A crypt beneath the monument holds the remains of three unidentified servicemen killed in the two world wars and the Korean War. A Vietnam War veteran buried there was later identified through DNA testing and removed.

An inscription on the 48-ton marble block reads: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.”

The first cracks were noticed in the 1940s, according to cemetery officials. The most noticeable crack now cuts through the middle of the monument, slicing through sculptures of Greek figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor on one side, and running below the words “an American.”

“Though cracked, this monument represents the patriotic spirit of all of the brave unidentified men and women who have fought and died in America’s wars,” Senator Jim Webb, D-Virginia, said in a statement. Webb sponsored the amendment to halt replacement of the tomb with Senator Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

The monument is a “national treasure that has been weathered by time,” much like the Liberty Bell and the Star-Spangled Banner, Akaka said.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been fighting efforts to replace the tomb with an exact replica. The existing monument should be preserved, not replaced, says Richard Moe, the group’s president. Preservationists consider the cracks to be cosmetic and not threatening to visitors or the monument.

Cemetery officials are required to report to Congress on repair or replacement options within about six months.

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