Travesty in the thousands, dishonor where honor should rest: graves in Arlington might be mislabeled

For almost 20 years I have pursued my family’s history, the study of genealogy. It’s taken me from the archive room at the National Archives, where I scrolled through dozens of microfilm reels, through forgotten family records and into the reaches of the Internet, a territory I know very well. Lately, there’s been a new tool I’ve been using, a network of volunteers who photograph the tombstones in the various cemeteries in the country, large and small. Over the past couple of weeks I took time out of my vacation wanderings to hike through cemeteries looking for the ancestors of people too distant to make the trip. I was largely successful in those searches (and my fellow researchers were quite thankful for my efforts) but as I made my way past those long lines of stones I ran into several that were literally unreadable due to their age. Neighboring stones showed dates as far back as 1803 in one case. The effort gave me some time to do some thinking.

Tombstones mark the earthly remains of one who has passed on. They provide a final touch point for many of us, connecting us to the past and the memories of a particular person. It is said that so long as one is remembered by those who loved them in life, they are never truly gone. The name of a person now deceased graven in the stone at their burial place calls the memories of a lifetime back to immediacy. It’s a very important part of our social structure and, indeed, of our civilization.

All of that goes double for those who have served our country in uniform and with distinction. Those who have died in the line of that duty, especially, are owed the honor and respect such actions bestow and the families are owed their unique point of connection. When it doesn’t happen, it’s more than a mistake. It’s a travesty and a dishonor. In the wake of the discovery of managerial misconduct at Arlington National Cemetery it’s now been revealed that the incompetence of that management may have resulted in thousands of grave sites at Arlington being mislabeled:

An internal Army investigation found at least 211 discrepancies between burial maps and grave sites at Arlington. The review found lax management of the cemetery and a reliance on paper records to manage the burial sites.

At a news conference Monday in Columbia, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said the number of burial site errors could be much higher because the Army report was limited to a small section of the cemetery.

McCaskill called the growing scandal a matter of “heartbreaking incompetence” and said the military has spent more than $5.5 million over seven years in its unsuccessful attempts to computerize the cemetery’s burial records.

“At the very essence here you have waste,” she said. “There may be fraud – we don’t know at this point.”

I find it hard to understand, considering I know the data required to provide a good record of a burial and my expertise in the information systems field, how the expenditure of $5½ million to computerize the cemetery records could be unsuccessful and not be intentional fraud. It’s ridiculous. It’s demonstrated incompetence.

I eagerly await the results of the full investigation and the trial, should it come to that, of the people responsible for this. No, I don’t want them jailed. I want them spending every weekend for the next 12 years going from 1 cemetery to the next to assist in grounds keeping. Perhaps spending the time seeing to it that final resting places of the deceased are kept in good condition – under tight supervision – will impress upon them the importance they should have been ascribing to the task they screwed up.


One comment

  1. I have always had an appreciation for cemeteries in a very deep sense as something to be cherished. I echo your words, as you put it so eloquently, that those who remain in memory are never truly gone. I have enjoyed being a part of the ‘network of volunteers who photograph the tombstones’ that you speak of, and it has given me a sense of satisfaction to see the number of people who participate in it as well. Since I was a teenager, I have frequented several particular cemeteries with my grandmother, who is now unfortunately in one of those graves I now visit. She brought members of our family to life, so to speak, through stories giving me an opportunity to hold a personal fondness for my ancestors. So the ‘network’ gives me an outlet to share all of this information, and I am happy to say there are many people all over the world who have benefited from my travels.

    As I have gotten more involved in taking photographs of tombstones, it has broadened my horizons in that I have visited some cemeteries that I wouldn’t have in my normal course. I have ‘met’ so many veterans and have grown to seek them out, in a sense, to try to keep their memory alive, in particular the graves of soldiers who have been tucked away in dark corners where no one can see them. It is similar to what you have said about Arlington. And I agree wholeheartedly at your suggestion that those who have misappropriated funds and not maintained records accurately for those who have given us the freedom to do all of these things should be directed to spend their weekends cleaning up the mess they made. It’s the least they can do for so many folks who gave so much and now seem to be falling into obscurity. Thankfully there are a lot of people who understand how delicate this information is if not handled properly.

    I appreciate your thoughts.

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