With a reflective and quiet ceremony Thursday afternoon, Arlington National Cemetery officially completed its first expansion in nearly 40 years – a 27-acre swath that is expected to be filled with military dead and their families by the 2040s.
Undercurrent of enthusiasm ran through an otherwise serious event. The expansion will keep the cemetery – long viewed as a shrine to America’s fallen heroes – viable for about 10 years longer than expected. Plans for the new space, titled the Millennium Project, have been in the works since Bill Clinton was president in 1990s.
“It’s a hugely important project for Arlington National Cemetery,” said David Fedroff, the cemetery’s deputy chief of engineering. “Any time we get to increase our burial capacity and have the opportunity to continue to serve veterans for the future is an extremely proud moment.”
A historic moment
About 100 people huddled in the shade of two large tents in the cemetery’s new Section 81 on Thursday.
The event started with cemetery officials unveiling signs for two new roads – one named for lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis and the other for Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan W. Gifford.
Ida Lewis is the first woman to be honored with a street name at Arlington. In the mid-1800s, Lewis rescued people near Lime Rock Island in Rhode Island, where her family tended the Lime Rock Lighthouse. The U.S. Lighthouse Service was later absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard.
“In 1854, her first rescue saved the lives of four men. At the time, she was 12 years old,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries. “She conducted many rescues, becoming a living legend, known even in her lifetime as the bravest woman in America.”
Gifford, now the first Marine to have a street named after him at Arlington, is buried in Section 60 of the cemetery. He was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2012, when he led a counterattack against a Taliban ambush. Gifford, who died at 34, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
On Thursday, his wife, Lesa, and five sons, Jonathan, Joseph, Patrick, Thomas and William, along with his parents, Diana and Thomas, and brother, Matthew, watched as a cemetery official pulled a black cover from the new street name, Gifford Drive.
The dedication ceremony ended with the first funeral in the new space. Two Union soldiers from the Civil War, discovered by archaeologists in June, were buried in a corner of Section 81, near the intersection of Gifford Drive and Lewis Drive.
The soldiers, whose identities are not known, were found at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, in a shallow grave alongside amputated limbs. Experts with the Smithsonian Institution determined the soldiers fought for the North.
Workers with the National Park Service used part of a 90-year-old oak tree from the battlefield, which fell during a windstorm, to create historically accurate coffins for the remains.
Soldiers, eight to a coffin, set them in place Thursday, as a 20-piece military band played “America the Beautiful.”
Some of the employees of Manassas National Battlefield Park attended the funeral.
“In addition to protecting the ground on which soldiers fought, we share their stories to ensure the enduring memory of their service and sacrifice,” said P. David Smith, deputy director of the National Park Service. “These two men, these two American soldiers, are forever part of that history.”
Capacity problems continue
The Millennium expansion, which came at a cost of $81.7 million, provides room for 27,828 interments, including under- and above-ground graves and space for cremated remains. It includes more than 6,000 pre-dug gravesites – a method used to save space and improve efficiency.
But the new sections are not a final solution for the 154-year-old cemetery, which is quickly running out of burial space.
During the next year, the cemetery’s advisory committee plans to determine how to keep Arlington a working cemetery.
One option that the committee is considering is to change eligibility standards for burial there. Under current rules, most veterans and military retirees are eligible for either above- or below-ground burial in Arlington.
Cemetery officials are also looking at the possibility of another expansion.
The cemetery is in the process of negotiating construction costs for a 37-acre project, titled the Southern Expansion. Most recent estimates peg the project at a cost of approximately $274 million with a completion date sometime between 2025 and 2027. At an advisory committee meeting earlier this year, Army Maj. Shannon Way, the strategic planner for Arlington, said the demand for burials at Arlington were “simply too high to handle and stay open for future generations.”
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