But after revelations that more than 240 graves sat incorrectly marked or unmarked, in some cases for years, and that at least eight people were buried in the wrong spots at several cemeteries across the country, the Cemetery Administration's vaunted reputation has been bruised.
As the agency continues to discover new problems, it is facing congressional scrutiny, concerns from veterans’ groups and outright anger from some families, who say their confidence in the agency responsible for taking care of their loved ones has been shaken.
“When we talk to families that are questioning their loved ones’ resting place, their emotions are in turmoil,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group that works with military families. “Some people are not able to go forward and ask the questions because they’re too difficult to ask. Others feel compelled to.”
Jennifer Tullis, the widow of a Marine sergeant whose urn was placed in a columbarium at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, felt the need to ask. Which is how she came to witness a funeral home director chip away at her husband’s clay-like ashes with a screwdriver several weeks ago — an episode that left her and her mother-in-law distraught.
Concerned that there may be more problems in the vast military cemetery system, first established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the Department of Veterans Affairs has embarked on a massive effort to check every one of its 3.1 million graves and fix any errors. Since the problems were first reported this year, VA officials have apologized and said they have implemented safeguards that would prevent the problems from happening again.
“I will make no excuses for these mistakes,” Steve Muro, the VA’s undersecretary for memorial affairs, told Congress this year. He said the agency has put in place “stricter accountability procedures for remains,” which include additional oversight of the contractors and cemetery employees responsible for the mistakes.
The problems were the latest in a series of scandals involving veterans. Arlington National Cemetery found dozens of incorrectly marked and unmarked graves, people buried in the wrong places, and urns that had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile. At the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, some remains of Iraq and Afghanistan service members, and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, were cremated and sent to a landfill.
Like Arlington and Dover, the VA cemetery system holds an important place in the American consciousness, both for the sacrosanct work it does and for what it symbolizes: a nation’s commitment to honor the fallen. And in the massive VA bureaucracy, which provides health-care and college tuition benefits to millions of veterans, burial assistance is perhaps one of the most overlooked, but intimate, services the VA provides.