A Building Boom for Veterans Cemeteries

Jun 24, 2015

The Veterans Administration and state governments have embarked on the largest expansion of veterans cemeteries since the Civil War.

Teresa West of the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs stands alongside burial vaults that will be used at the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery now under construction in Goldsboro.
Credit Jay Price/WUNC

Most people expect their eternal rest will be peaceful.

But not the ones who want to be buried in the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery now under construction in Goldsboro.

North Carolina’s newest veterans cemetery is right under the flight path of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. On some days, the roar of low-flying fighter jets and aerial tankers overwhelms the cemetery every few minutes.

But that’s kind of the whole point. The state and county governments specifically decided to build the cemetery near Seymour Johnson to accommodate the large local population of former service members.  The cemetery – scheduled to open in November – is designed to accommodate more than 11,000 graves. The unusual architecture of its buildings symbolizes its military connection.

“It looks like airplane wings,” said Teresa West, who helps oversee the four cemeteries run by the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs. “All of our cemeteries are different as far as architecture, so I think this one is very special.”

Wayne County officials worked more than a decade to bring the cemetery to Goldsboro. Federal, state, and local dignitaries broke ground in November after the project received a $5.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. West's state agency will handle burials and maintain it in perpetuity.

“It’s a place of special honor for me to be buried there, to be recognized as a veteran,” said Michael Burris, an Army medic during the Vietnam War who helped plan the cemetery and and lobbied state leaders to get it built.

Burris, 68, who now lives just outside Goldsboro, said the cemetery will serve a vital need for local veterans, especially those who would have a hard time paying for burial elsewhere.

“There is no cost to veterans,” he said.  “It’s a big burden lifted off my family.”

In the next few years, a lot more families around the country are going to be able to avoid that burden. The National Cemetery Administration, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, has embarked on a building boom to put cemeteries close to more veterans. It's the largest expansion of veterans cemeteries since the Civil War.

The Department’s research has found that families are unlikely to use a cemetery more than 75 miles from their homes. 

“We have opened 19 new national cemeteries since 1999 and will be doing an additional 17 between now and the near future,” said Ronald Walters, the acting head of the National Cemetery Administration. “That’s an amazing expansion and unprecedented for our system.”

And those statistics don’t include federal grants in the past five years to build nearly two dozen state and Native American tribal-owned cemeteries around the country, including the one in Goldsboro. 43 more cemeteries expanded.

Walters’ office is also taking some creative steps. In rural areas with too few veterans to justify full cemeteries, the VA is building veterans sections in existing public and private burial grounds. The first just opened in Montana, and seven more are on the way.

Meanwhile, in major cities, where land is scarce and expensive, the VA is taking advantage of a powerful national trend toward cremation. Walters said just over half of the burials now are for cremated remains, compared with 38 percent ten years ago. The rate is about 70 percent in some parts of the country, such as Sarasota National Cemetery in Florida and Riverside National Cemetery in California.

In Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Indianapolis, and the San Francisco area, the VA is building national cemeteries that are solely columbaria, large buildings that house funeral urns.

In Goldsboro, the new state cemetery will have a columbarium, too. And Wayne County Veterans Services officer Sandy Lugo says more than two dozen families are waiting for it to open in November.

“They’re excited because they’re holding ashes at home, actually, waiting for the cemetery to open so they can have a service and have them placed there” Lugo said. “And then I’ve also got the ones who were hoping to live long enough to see it open and know that they’ll go there.

The federal government handles burials and maintenance at national cemeteries. North Carolina has four national veterans cemeteries, though only the one in Salisbury still has space for new burials.

West, the administrator who helps oversee the separate state-run cemetery system, says she worries that veterans aren’t aware of all the benefits they’re entitled to, like the free burials.

Michael Burris, the Vietnam vet, says that beyond the honor and the savings, there will be something else special about being buried at the Goldsboro cemetery. It will be part of a buffer that protects Seymour Johnson from encroaching residential development. Should the Pentagon decide to close more bases, the buffer makes it less likely that Seymour Johnson will be targeted.  

“It protects the land and protects their flight path to keep the base from being closed,” Burris said.

The way Burris sees it, jet noise he won’t be able to hear anyway is a small price for the chance to serve his country again, even after he’s gone.