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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Arlington National Cemetery, "the nation's most hallowed military burial ground," was born in an act of theft: The U.S. government confiscated it in 1861 from Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, after he took command of the army of Northern Virginia. The first of the Union dead buried there was Pvt. William Christman, a member of the Pennsylvania regiment who saw as much combat as did now-disgraced Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence--none.

Of the United States' 114 national cemeteries, only Arlington is administered by the Department of the Army. All the rest fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Arlington contains the remains of 240,000 dead. It also contains several monuments, including the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Tomb of the Unknown Dead from the Civil War, the latter a granite tomb that holds the remains of 2,111 Civil War soldiers. There are also monuments honoring women in the military, the victims of the failed Iran rescue mission, the slain Kennedy brothers, the victims of the space shuttle Challenger mission, the Rough Riders, and the victims of the USSMaine (its mast was salvaged from Havana harbor and brought to Arlington).

"The event that thrust us into the national spotlight was the burial of President Kennedy in 1963," says cemetery superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. Only 1 million people visited the cemetery the year before JFK was assassinated, the Washington Post reports. During the six months following the assassination, 9 million came, and by 1968, the Kennedy shrine was attracting 7 million people a year.

"Requests for burials rose by 400 percent" following JFK's televised burial, the Post continues. As late as 1967, any veteran with an honorable discharge was eligible for burial in Arlington, and the cemetery had only a year's worth of plots in reserve. To conserve space, the government adopted new eligibility rules that made the cemetery a more exclusive--and therefore more attractive--address for the dead.

Although Arlington remains the prestigious address, any veteran with an honorable discharge automatically qualifies for burial--with military honors--in one of the nation's veterans cemeteries.

Last month, the Associated Press reported the arcane rules currently in effect for who can be buried in Arlington:

Military personnel who died on active duty;

The heavily decorated, including those who won the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, or Purple Heart;

Long timers with 20 years of active duty or active reserve service who qualify for retired pay upon retirement at age 60;

Those retired for disability reasons;

Those honorably discharged before Oct. 1, 1949, for at least 30-percent disability.

The other rules read like the fine print on an insurance policy:

The spouse or unmarried child (21 years or younger) of those listed above or those already buried in Arlington. An unmarried dependent student qualifies before age 23, as does any adult child who acquired a physical or mental disability before age 21;

A veteran who is the parent, brother, sister, or child of an eligible person already interred. Interment must be in the same grave as the primary eligible, the veteran's spouse must waive his or her eligibility for Arlington, and the veteran can have no dependent children at the time of death.

Those not eligible include:

The remarried widower/widow of an eligible person, unless he/she is no longer married at death;

Those whose last discharge was less than honorable.

After adopting the new eligibility rules, the government established a waiver system for exceptions granted by the president, or by the secretary or high-ranking officials of the Army. Secretary of the Army Togo West has granted 58 exceptions since November 1993. High-ranking Army officials have granted seven during that time. President Clinton has granted four. The Carter administration granted 17 exceptions in four years, the Reagan administration 53 exceptions in eight years, and the Bush administration 34 exceptions in four years. West explains that the increased demand for Arlington plots helps account for the record number of waivers he has approved.

Ambassador Lawrence apparently lied about having served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. (Besides, the Merchant Marine is not a part of the armed forces.) Other ambassadors who did not serve in the military but are buried in Arlington anyway: Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John A. Scali (1995) and Arnold L. Raphel (1988; he died in an air crash while serving as ambassador to Pakistan). Other envoys who received burial waivers but did serve in the military: William R. Rivkin (1967), Cleo A. Noel Jr. (1973), Phillip K. Crowe (1976), and Adolph A. Dubs (1979).

Clinton's four waivers: Justice Thurgood Marshall; Elvera Burger, the widow of Chief Justice Warren Burger; Army veteran and Drug Enforcement Administration agent J.W. Seale, killed in Peru while on a mission; and Marine veteran and Washington, D.C., police officer Henry J. Daly, killed in a shootout.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

While not a secret, the waiver program is not publicized, Secretary West has acknowledged. He outlined the waiver rules in a November press conference. Ambassadors who die in office merit consideration for a space in Arlington. Cemetery superintendent Metzler told the Washington Post that he would have recommended a waiver for Lawrence, "given the fact he died in office" and was "serving actively in a post at the time of his death." Also qualifying under waivers are U.S. government employees who are "killed in the course of their service to America," those who have performed "unique service" to the nation, and reservists who die while on active duty for training. "Humanitarian concerns" for the family requesting an Arlington burial are also acknowledged, said West, citing a World War I veteran who didn't automatically qualify under the rules but whom he would have waived in, and a Tuskegee airman who had flown 22 combat flights.

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.

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.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.