Running Out of Room

With more burials and a finite amount of space, Arlington National Cemetery struggles with expansion.

By David Schultz
Courtesy of the Arlington Connection
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As one looks out over the flowing rows of gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery, it’s easy to imagine that the grounds of the country’s most hallowed military monument go on forever. But the cemetery is a finite place, covering 624 acres on the banks of the Potomac River.

More than 300,000 people are buried there, including several astronauts, 11 five-star generals, twelve Supreme Court justices and two presidents. As those who served in World War II begin to die in ever-higher numbers, and as casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increase, Arlington National Cemetery is beginning to run out of space for new gravesites.

“I would hope there would always be an Arlington National Cemetery,” said Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy superintendent. “It would have to be continuous to these walls down there.”

Any active duty or retired member of the Armed Forces is eligible for a ground burial at Arlington National Cemetery. This does not include service members who were in the Armed Forces for a few years and were then discharged, Higginbotham said. In addition, any member of the Armed Forces who has been awarded a Purple Heart decoration is eligible for a ground burial as well as any Armed Forces member who has held elective office. Also, the spouses and minor children of anyone already buried in Arlington National Cemetery are entitled to a ground burial there.

With these admission rules in place, nearly 6,500 ground burials per year take place at the cemetery, according to Kaitlin Horst, an administrative assistant at Arlington National Cemetery.

However, only some of those burials require the digging of new gravesites. Since 1962, the Cemetery has had a policy of burying the family of service members in the same grave.

“All family members go into the same grave,” Higginbotham said. “If a veteran dies, we bury [his wife] seven feet deep and we bury him on top. It’s not side by side.”

Even with this policy in place, Arlington National Cemetery still creates around 2,000 new gravesites per year, Horst said, a number that has been expanding since the beginning of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. With each new gravesite taking up around 50 square feet, Horst said that cemetery officials are estimating that all currently available land will be occupied by 2030.

“With the sites we have, we have space available until 2030,” Horst said. “[But] there are several development projects available right now.”

Eight years ago, Higginbotham said, the cemetery acquired approximately 6.5 acres of land near the Fort Myer Chapel north of the current grounds. The land is currently being redeveloped, Higginbotham said, and should be available for burials very soon.

“Construction has already started there,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last but we’re pretty well set [there].”

Arlington National Cemetery is also in negotiations to acquire the land at the current site of the Navy Annex on Columbia Pike. The Navy Annex, also known as Federal Office Building No. 2, was built in 1941 and is currently used as swing space for workers displaced by renovations at the Pentagon. Once these renovations are completed in 2010, the Department of Defense will vacate this property.

Who will receive this land and how much they will receive is still unclear.

Arlington County has requested 4.5 acres of the Navy Annex property to establish a Black History Museum. William Thomas, an official in Arlington County’s office of Community, Planning Housing and Development, said that the county is currently negotiating with the Department of Defense for a land swap that would “allow the Cemetery to expand onto the Navy Annex without any interruption.” The Black History Museum, Thomas said, would be on the western end of the Navy Annex site.

A deal between Arlington County, the Department of Defense and the cemetery could be finalized as early as next month, Thomas said. Yet he described negotiations as “delicate.”

With these two new parcels of land, Arlington National Cemetery will have space for ground burials until 2060, Horst said. But Higginbotham said that cemetery officials do not have a formal plan in place to deal with creating new gravesites after 2060. “We would probably have to start looking at that,” he said.

Higginbotham has been working at the cemetery for more than four decades and he said that he has seen how the amount of open space at Arlington National Cemetery has grown more and more scarce over the years. “We used to have Arlington Ridge Road that ran from Columbia Pike to Rosslyn,” he said. “Now that road is gone and it’s in the cemetery now … I’ve seen a lot change in 40 some years.”

Higginbotham also said that he has heard talk of creating a satellite cemetery somewhere off I-95 in Prince William County. But this idea didn’t sit well with him.

“Arlington Cemetery annex?” Higginbotham asked. “Nah, that just doesn’t grab me. It’s such hallowed ground here.”

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