Back in 1864, the Union was running out of space to bury Civil War casualties. Military officials decided to solve the problem by appropriating part of the Arlington, Virginia plantation that belonged to Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and turning it into a military burial ground. Pvt. William Christman, a 21-year-old soldier from Pennsylvania who died of the measles before he got a chance to see combat, was the first to be buried there.
In the years that followed, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), which covers 624 acres (252 hectares) across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., became perhaps the nation's most hallowed ground, the final resting place for many of the nation's military heroes, from Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Pvt. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, to service members killed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also buried at Arlington are explorers, astronauts and Supreme Court Justices. The grave of President John F. Kennedy — marked with the gas-and-electric "eternal flame" that's designed to remain lighted despite wind and rain — attracted more than 16 million mourners in the first three years after his 1963 assassination.
Over 7,000 Buried Each Year
But the cemetery, which has become the final resting place for more than 400,000 people, is rapidly filling up, with more than 7,000 being added each year. According to a report prepared by cemetery officials for Congress in 2017, there are fewer than 70,000 spaces left, and even with a current expansion project that will add nearly 11,000 below-ground graves and 16,400 above-ground spots, the cemetery is projected to be full by the early 2040s.
"ANC and those it exists to serve must therefore confront the reality that, at some point in the future, the cemetery will no longer continue to operate as it does today," the report noted. "Most veterans from the recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terrorism will not have the option to be buried at ANC. Even our heroes who are killed in action or those who have earned the Medal of Honor will not be buried at ANC within approximately three decades due to the lack of space."
At a March 2018 hearing by the House Armed Services Committee, Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of the Army's National Military Cemeteries, further described the predicament. "The current veteran population is over 20 million," she explained, according to an Army media release. "The retiree population is over 2 million. The total force, both active and reserve, is over 2 million right now. Today we have around 100,000 available burial spaces. We cannot serve that population."
Even a proposed $274 million expansion that would add another 38 acres (15 hectares) along the cemetery's southern border would only buy an additional decade, Arlington National Cemetery superintendent Katharine Kelley told Congress at the same hearing, according to the Army's release.
Should Eligibility Rules be Changed?
That's why officials are now contemplating changing Arlington's eligibility requirements. Under the present rules, activity duty members of the armed services, as well as service members who've served at least one day of active duty and stayed in uniform long enough — traditionally, 20 years — to earn retirement benefits, are eligible for below-ground burial. So are their spouses and children. So are recipients of various medals and prisoners of war who died after November 30, 1993. In addition, active duty and retired members and their spouses and children, as well as reservists and National Guard members who die while on active duty or performing full-time service, are eligible for above-ground burial in the Columbarium, also known as the Niche Wall.
In the 2017 report, Army officials proposed a range of possible rule changes. The most restrictive option would allow in only those who were killed in action and/or were awarded the Medal of Honor. "This option can be expected to result in delaying the closure of ANC for at least two centuries — unless our Nation experiences large scale conflict and higher numbers of Service members killed in action," the report explained.
But such a move also would exclude the vast majority of military veterans and their families, and seems likely to encounter pushback.
Gerardo Avila, a deputy director of the American Legion, a veterans association, says that the issue of what to do about Arlington is still in the discussion stages, though clearly, "Arlington is reaching capacity, and something needs to be done."
In a resolution at the American Legion's 2016 convention, the organization urged Congress to step in and pass a law that would limit Arlington to service members who die on active duty, winners of the Medal of Honor and other decorations, World War II-era veterans who left the service 30 percent or more disabled, prisoners of war and career service members.
John Towles, director of national security and foreign affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, says in an email that the VFW is opposed to severe restrictions on eligibility for interment at Arlington. "We advocate for a solution that will ensure that the benefits that they earned through their service remain available to them," he writes. "Because of this, the VFW cannot support changes that would take benefits away from veterans and family members who have already earned them, many of whom have already made plans to be buried at Arlington."
Another option to restricting eligibility for Arlington would be to create a non-contiguous annex on land around the Armed Forces Retirement Home campus in Washington, D.C., about 8-and-a-half miles (13.67 kilometers) away. Towles said that much of the site's 272-acre (110-hectares) expanse would be available. The United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery, another burial ground operated by the Army, already is nearby.
But even if it becomes more difficult to be buried at Arlington, veterans still have the option of being buried at another of the 135 national cemeteries that the National Cemetery Administration operates in 40 states and Puerto Rico. They still would be entitled to the same ceremony, Presidential memorial certificate and perpetual care of their graves that those interred at Arlington receive, Avila says.