Army officials expect to unveil their final rule changes for burial eligibility at Arlington National Cemetery sometime this fall, after they finish sorting through significant public feedback on plans to restrict which veterans can choose the site as their final resting place.
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said she expects revisions to those rules in coming months, but would not say whether that would tighten or loosen the proposed eligibility restrictions.
“We continue to explore all viable options to ensure Arlington National Cemetery continues to honor our nation’s heroes for generations to come,” she said.
“It’s really an impossible problem for us. The eligible population is more than 22 million ... currently today, we have less than 85,000 spaces.”
The proposed changes are designed to extend use of the cemetery for several more decades.
Army officials in late 2019 proposed restricting all below-ground burial sites to combat heroes, battle casualties and a small pool of notable dignitaries. Other veterans would be eligible for placement of cremated remains in above-ground structures at the cemetery.
But numerous veterans groups have opposed that move, saying it could upset numerous families’ end-of-life plans and risks the perception that certain military experiences are more valuable than other service. Nearly 2,000 individuals and advocacy groups submitted public comments on the eligibility rule changes last fall.
The 157-year-old cemetery, originally established as an overflow site for mounting Civil War casualties, has become one of the most hallowed military sites in America. Before the pandemic, about 3 million visitors traveled to the site annually.
About 400,000 individuals are buried at the site now. About 7,000 individuals are interred at the cemetery in a typical year, although those numbers were reduced in 2020 because of the restrictions due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Expansion plans are expected to add about 80,000 new burial spaces to the cemetery. Durham-Aguilera said officials need about $140 million in additional appropriations to be approved by Congress for fiscal 2022 to ensure the site’s southern expansion project remains on schedule.
But other efforts to add more land to the site are limited by the nearby Potomac River and the growing northern Virginia suburbs.
Officials said the ongoing pandemic still poses too much of a risk for the large-scale gathering.
“Expansion alone will not allow Arlington National Cemetery to remain open to new interments well into the future,” she warned.
“Without changes to eligibility, Arlington National Cemetery will run out of space for new burials in the early 2040s or the mid-2060s with the construction of the Southern Expansion project, even for those service members who are killed in action or are recipients of the Medal of Honor.”
With the eligibility changes, officials estimate the site can remain an active cemetery for more than 150 years.
None of the proposed rule changes for Arlington would affect veterans cemetery sites run by the Department of Veterans Affairs across the country.