An investigation headed by the Army Inspector General showed over 200 burial remains were unmarked or misplaced in Arlington National Cemetery. Over 100 graves had no headstones or burial cards. Another 94 graves marked with headstones were recorded as "unoccupied" in the cemetery's records. In four cases, burial urns were found dumped with excess grave dirt.
As a result, Army Secretary John McHugh harshly reprimanded retiring cemetery Superintendent John Metzler for the cemetery's mismanagement. Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham was put on administrative leave pending a review for disciplinary action. Kathryn Condon, a veteran civilian Army executive, was appointed to take over management of the cemetery. Army officials continue to apologize to military families for the cemetery's unacceptable conditions.
Arlington National Cemetery serves as the final resting place and lasting tribute to our nation's fallen heroes. Over 300,000 people are buried there, including veterans from all of our nation's wars, presidents, astronauts, and Supreme Court justices. Over a hundred funerals for veterans and others are performed at the cemetery each week.
Grieving at the Wrong Grave
Recently, disturbing allegations of mismanagement in the cemetery's operation surfaced. Blaming poor recordkeeping based on out-dated methods, a former cemetery employee claimed that burial records and headstones don't match up. A 2008 report to Congress described inconsistencies with burial maps, the physical location of headstones and burial records. Visitors are wondering if headstones are on the correct graves.
Some visitors are also upset with the cemetery's practice of throwing away mementos that are left at gravesites. Photographs, cards, letters and other items are left to rot in the weather and then trashed by groundskeepers. Cemetery officials defend the practice as necessary to the proper maintenance of the grounds. However, some visiting families find it insensitive for cemetery workers to treat their treasured mementos like garbage.
Correcting Grave Errors
Can families take any legal action against a cemetery if the grave of a loved one is lost or mismarked? Could visitors demand that gravesite mementos be saved or returned to families?
Cemeteries can be sued for shoddy recordkeeping that results in the inability to locate a grave. In a 1987 case, the Supreme Court of Texas allowed a family to recover money from a city cemetery because it failed to keep records showing where their infant child was buried.
However, Arlington National Cemetery is run by the US Army. It's difficult to maintain legal action against the Army because it is protected by sovereign or governmental immunity. Sovereign immunity is a legal rule that means the government can't be sued unless it has agreed to be sued.
Legal action might be possible against the Army though by way of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Through the APA, the government has waived immunity, or agreed to be sued, for certain types of claims. Although a money award isn't permitted, it might be possible to get an injunction or order that directs the Army to follow the law and regulations that require Arlington National Cemetery to maintain proper burial records.
It may be difficult to succeed on demands that the cemetery save or collect gravesite mementos. In cases against other cemeteries, courts have ruled that family members were required to follow the rules of the cemetery regarding the maintenance of the grounds.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Who is permitted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery? Can any veteran be buried there?
- Can I choose the specific plot or location for my loved one's burial in a national cemetery? What if I'm not happy with the site selected?
- Can I decorate my relative's grave anyway I like?