By CAITLIN JOHNSTON, Capital News Service
Every year for the last five years, more than 3,000 veterans and their beneficiaries were buried in state cemeteries in Maryland – the most of any state in the nation, according to the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some have flowers and stones, cards and Hershey kisses marking their names. Some remain unadorned, mixed in a sea of granite grave markers.
They fought in Vietnam and World War II. Iraq and Afghanistan. They served as infantry and nurses, artillery and airmen. Some lived long. Others died young.
Thoughts of veterans cemeteries conjure images of row after row of uniform, white marble headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
But over the last few years, the reality has proven to be a little different as cremation increased drastically as a viable, and often preferred, option for veterans and non-veterans alike.
Though it varies by state, 42 percent of Americans were cremated last year, according to data from the Cremation Association of North America. That number is expected to rise as high as 65 percent by 2025.
The association lists five reasons for this increase, including growing religious acceptance and the environmental impact of putting so many bodies in the ground.
But for Chris Piscitelli, director of cemetery and memorial programs for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, it’s more simple.
“Cost,” Piscitelli said. “That’s what I hear from families and other individuals over and over again. The difference in cost between caskets versus cremation is staggering.”
And some people, he said, just don’t want to be interred in the ground. Three of Maryland’s five state-run cemeteries include columbariums – about 7-foot-tall walls that hold the cremains of individuals in personal niches covered with markers.
“A lot of times, the niche covers are at eye level, which people like,” said Howard Orr, a project manager in the National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Cemetery Grant Service.
“In some cases, it looks more like a memorial. In some cases, a loved one’s been cremated and moved from one place to the next. And at some point, they decided it would be nice to have them in a final resting place."
The three biggest state cemeteries in Maryland – Crownsville, Garrison Forest and Cheltenham – all include columbariums. Rocky Gap and Eastern Shore are looking to add them in future renovations.
The National Cemetery Administration distributes grants every year to help state veterans cemeteries with expansion, maintenance and projects. For the 2013 fiscal year, Maryland has several requests in, including for the expansion of the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery.
Every Maryland state cemetery except Cheltenham has a request in for funds to aid with improvements to the cemeteries, which could include things such as gravesite locator kiosks.
State cemeteries are critical for Maryland since most national cemeteries in the state are pretty much full or closed, said Chris Erbe, spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration.
More than 160,000 veterans and their beneficiaries are buried in Maryland, spread out among state, national and private cemeteries. Of those, about three quarters are veterans.
Maryland has led the nation the last five years in most burials in state veterans cemeteries. It’s not that more veterans from Maryland are dying, Piscitelli said, but that there are more locations and options for veteran burials in Maryland.
For instance, states such as Louisiana and California that dwarf Maryland in size only have two or three state cemeteries, respectively. And if veterans and their families aren’t close to one of those locations, they might opt for a private option, instead.
Garrison Forest is the largest state cemetery in Maryland, with more than 32,653 maintained gravesites. But smaller ones such as Eastern Shore, which maintains more than 5,000 gravesites, see even more activity and visitors on Memorial Day.
“They have a very active veterans base out there,” Piscitelli said. “Normally, the cemeteries see about 500 visitors on Memorial Day. More than 1,000 come to Eastern Shore.”
Fewer than 100 of the veterans buried in Maryland served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to data. Many of the burials this year were veterans who fought in World War II and Vietnam.
Where a veteran is buried is completely up to the family, Orr said. State cemeteries are run similar to national cemeteries and are maintained and kept to the same standards.
“Many people choose veterans cemeteries because they’re there specifically to honor veterans and their families,” Orr said.