Arlington National Cemetery

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Dec. 13 1997 3:30 AM

Arlington National Cemetery

Dying to get in? Here's how.

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Waiver requests often are forwarded to the superintendent and the secretary of the Army from members of Congress, although individuals can make the requests directly. Because corpses have a short shelf life, the decisions are made quickly.

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The Los Angeles Times reports that Clinton issued an Arlington waiver-in-advance for former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who is still alive. Koop is the only person to have been so honored.

Arlington's 612 acres will be filled with corpses by 2020 if the rate of 20 burials a day continues. According to West, one Arlington gravesite can hold three caskets. Of the 58 burials approved by West, 42 were in existing graves.

There is plenty of room for cremains: Arlington added a columbarium in 1980; it accepts the cremated remains of any veteran who received an honorable discharge.

The cemetery overlooks the Potomac River and has more than 14,000 trees. Most graves are marked with simple tombstones. The major exception: the turn-of-the-century Officers Section, which is crowded with lavish markers. These stone angels, huge crosses, marble cannonballs--and even a cannon--were paid for by soldiers' families.

The Union had buried about 7,000 soldiers on the Lee estate by 1864, deliberately planting tombstones in Mrs. Lee's rose garden right up to the Lee house's back door. After the war, a freedmen's village was established on the Lee plantation, and included a hospital, a school, and a church. More than 3,800 former slaves are buried at Arlington under headstones that say either "civilian" or "citizen."

Arlington National Cemetery expansion, which pushed the freedmen's village out, may also claim a 24-acre plot of woods around Lee's old home. The parcel would add 10 years' worth of burial space. Also eyed for annexation is part of Fort Myer, adjacent to Arlington, and a parcel owned by the Department of Defense.

Robert E. Lee's son, George, sued the U.S. government in the 1870s for the return of the family estate. The Supreme Court upheld his claim, and the government paid him $150,000 for it. The general never returned to his plantation. He is buried in Lexington, Va., in Washington and Lee University's Lee Chapel.

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