So far, I haven’t heard a coherent response from Veterans about the dishonorable management of Arlington National Cemetery that keeps coming to light. So, I’m offering one as a point of departure for Veterans to converse and perhaps speak with a single, strong voice to those with the power to improve things.

I was unaware of Arlington’s problems until they made the national news. Even then, I lamented and got only reasonably angry because it did not involve me personally. Then I read that fateful article about urns being accidentally unearthed and dumped with no hope of being restored to their rightful resting place.

You see, when I was on active duty in 1973, our son died stillborn. It was a great personal tragedy for both of us, particularly since she had to carry him to term to protect her health. We were stationed in St. Louis then and I was pursuing an Air Force career. So we decided to bury him in our home state of Georgia. The national cemetery in Marietta was closed at the time, so we chose Andersonville, not too far from my birthplace. To do this, I signed an agreement to eventually be buried there, too.

My first difficult decision was to stay by my wife’s side and not attend his graveside funeral. I wrote the service and my parent’s stood for us by his blue infant casket. She and I grieved heartbroken far away.

Then in 1987 the unspeakable, unexpected happened. She died at the peak of happiness, only 42. With our children, I carried her ashes on that long journey to south Georgia. I can’t say enough about the professionalism and care shown us by the folks at Andersonville over the years.

So, it came as quite a shock last month that I read it might be possible that when I am buried in a casket her ashes might be accidentally discarded and no one would ever know. If it happened at Arlington, could it happen elsewhere?

I became intensely interested in everything I could read about the problems at Arlington National Cemetery. What I have found is not reassuring.

There is no coherent, common management of national cemeteries in this country and I, for one, cannot let that stand.

Today, our national cemeteries are managed by the Department of the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Defense. They naturally do some of the same things differently, and each way (naturally) is best. Such stovepipes are unjustified and absurd to my logical mind.

There is room for significant improvement across the board. For starters, there is no common digital record system (paper record prevail), no common mapping system, no common photo data base, no standardized procedures for interment, maintenance, or military honors as far as I can tell, and no common application of precision GPS for repositioning of remains and headstones in the event of a natural disaster. The Georgia flood of 1995 did not adversely affect Andersonville National Cemetery but other local cemeteries were not so lucky. As a result the State of Georgia now requires remains (not containers) to be uniquely identified in a public registry. There is no national requirement that I know of.

One place to start is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Bless our brethren, but we can improve on their success. We can also learn from the 24 American cemeteries on foreign soil, particularly (I’m told) the impeccable maintenance at Normandy.

A thorough national review needs to be done, resulting in a comprehensive strategic implementation that will assure Veterans and their survivors a modicum of peace. It goes without saying that our honored dead deserve no less. And it falls to us Veterans to lead the way.

Photo of Jay Harden

Jay Harden is an active duty Air Force and Missouri Air National Guard Veteran. He was a Navigator on a B-52 with the 99th Bomb Wing (SAC), with 63 combat missions. He worked at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency as a physical scientist.



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Published on Jun. 3, 2011

Estimated reading time is 3.4 min.

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  1. Arlington National Cemetery June 22, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Arlington National Cemetery has made a number of changes this past year. For more details, follow the link below to a fact sheet of the changes.

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  2. Jim Davis, Veterans-For-Change June 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    What has happened and been allowed to happen at Arlington is at best very bad management on the part of the Department of the Army. The VA Cemetery system is not a part of this.

    And they’ve known for decades of the problems and only put a band aid on the problem.

    Their records system is also a major disaster and what they should have done was to adopt the VA’s Cemetery system which is electronic.

    Personally I feel the VA should be allowed to take over Arlington National and put into immediate action their system.

    I do agree with the one poster that a GPS chip should be a party of burial as well so in case of natural disaster remains can be easily identified and re-interned properly!

    I guess what made me so angry with Arlington was to read that headstones were in streams and buried in the dirt and none of the grounds keepers ever made mention or even attempted to correct the problem.

    Bodies were stacked in storage facilities unlabeled, and that urns had been dumped and no way to restore them.

    Arlington is one of the most Prestigious Cemetery’s for a very select few, and relatives can be buried in any national cemetery where the Veteran is buried it’s part of their policy so that husband and wife are buried together. Some even allow for one or two children if they were to have passed away early in age.

    But I absolutely agree something needs to be done and fast!

  3. SFC (Ret) James Laubler June 4, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Rarely do I blog and answer to blogs. But, the email title grabbed my by the shirt to your blog here.

    I am with you on this one. I am REALLY with you. And, this comes from a guy who has “chosen” to have his ashes spread to save the land for the living.

    Those who choose different ways to be handled after their and their families death should be acknowledged and performed witsolemnlomn duty.

    You may use my name in your quest to right this wrong. Here in Fayetteville Arkansas, DOZENS of us veterans had to fight the “progressive” city council and developers from encroaching ocemeterymetary. We succeed. You can see we take care of ours as you do. I’m tired of us retired and dead Service Members being neglected and ignored. God help them if we old farts have to fight.

    Blessing and Success to you,

    Jim Laubler
    Special Forces Ret.

  4. Sara Friedman June 4, 2011 at 9:37 am


    The impression I get about Arlington Cemetery is that too many people want to be buried there. I always thought Arlington was strictly for service members of this country, but I recently found out relatives, friends etc… want to be buried there. Who can be buried there needs to be addressed.

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