Arlington Cemetery works to fix burial problems

June 10, 2011 - 5:57 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new manager has been brought in at Arlington National Cemetery, capping a yearlong struggle to revamp burial procedures and record-keeping after a spate of grave mix-ups that marred the reputation of the U.S. military's most hallowed ground.

The Army says that James Gemmell, former director of the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minnesota, will be deputy superintendent at Arlington. His hiring fills out the new management team, a year after a highly critical Army inspector general's report found at least 211 discrepancies between burial maps and actual grave sites.

Last September, officials determined that two people were buried in the wrong graves, and in December they discovered eight sets of cremated remains buried in one grave, with a headstone marked "unknown." The IG report found cemetery operations were poorly managed, understaffed and antiquated.

The problems unleashed an emotional torrent of protests from families and veterans, including from distraught spouses who found they had been visiting and leaving flowers at graves for years only to find out that their loved ones were not buried there.

Since then the Army has struggled to correct the problems, setting up new automated systems, hiring more staff, drafting stricter identification standards, and creating a searchable database that the public will be able to access.

Arlington officials have also started allowing some burial services that don't require military honors to be done on Saturdays in order to meet demands.

The new staff has been working to reconcile more than 146 years' worth of burial data, digitally capturing the front and back of each marker to match with paper records and aerial photographs mapping the cemetery's 624 acres.

"No one should doubt the commitment of the U.S. Army to do whatever is required to fix the problems identified at Arlington National Cemetery last year," Army spokesman Gary Tallman said Friday.

Each year almost 4 million people visit Arlington, where more than 300,000 remains are buried, including those of troops from conflicts dating to the Civil War, as well as U.S. presidents and their spouses and other U.S. officials. There are about 27-30 military funerals a day.